These 7 States Still Operate Debtors’ Prisons

They’re supposed to be illegal, but across the United States, debtor’s prisons are alive and well.

The ACLU, among many other organizations, is hard at work trying to abolish the practice, which amounts to imprisoning people for unpaid debt, like court fees.

In multiple states, including those with extremely high prison populations, this practice is still routine. Debtors’ prisons unfairly target low-income populations, particularly communities of color, thanks to racial profiling.

Here’s how it works: When people make contact with the criminal justice system, they may face an array of court fees, but these fines are imposed regardless of ability to pay.

These courts don’t offer fee waivers, feasible payment plans or sufficient alternatives, such as community service. Interest begins to rack up, pushing fees into the hundreds or even thousands. When individuals can’t pay, they wind up being sent to jail.

These fees may be imposed for traffic violations or small claims court cases — including suits brought by lenders, thus ensuring that people who are already indebted will be caught in the crosshairs of the system. Other fines may come from situations where people are expected to pay bail or child support.

Roughly a third of U.S. states have some form of debtor’s prison — here are just a few of them.

1. Texas

In Texas, former inmates are suing Harris County for a “wealth-based” system that puts people behind bars for an inability to pay. 55 people died in pretrial custody between 2009 and 2015 — and yes, you read that right. These individuals hadn’t even gone to court and been convicted.

The complainants also allege that they weren’t provided with defense attorneys to help them navigate a confusing legal system, and that they were slapped with fines above the legal maximum.

2. California

Another lawsuit, this time in San Francisco, claims that an arbitrary fee schedule doesn’t make allowances for ability to pay. Consequently, people are jailed for being unable to resolve their court fees.

Even the county sheriff stood behind the suit, acknowledging that requiring a generic fee schedule creates a highly stratified legal system. Wealthier people can easily pay bail and fees without having to borrow money, even at very high interest.

3. Alabama

The Southern Poverty Law Center has gone after multiple Alabama cities, including Alexander City and Montgomery, for unfair court fees. In Alexander City, 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The city aggressively collected fines and jailed those who didn’t pay until they reached a settlement with the SPLC in 2015 – as did Montgomery. The organization works aggressively across the South to address injustices like these in some of the most impoverished and racially stratified communities in the country.

4. Arkansas

In Arkansas, an aggressive criminal eviction law allows the state to jail individuals who fail to pay rent on time. Many of these renters lack the resources to hire attorneys, and they’re helpless in court against a landlord.

Renters can land in jail for as long as three months if a landlord chooses to pursue prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.

5. Georgia

Failure to pay court-mandated fees, including restitution, can land debtors in jail in the Peach State. In Georgia, as elsewhere, the problem is compounded by the use of private third-party firms to administer court fees.

Such firms, operating at a profit rather than in the public interest, may misstate information and overcharge citizens. Private firms can send individuals to jail, even in situations where they shouldn’t have gone in the first place.

6) Florida

Florida has actually added listings to its fee schedule, creating even more chances to put people in jail. In some cases, defendants have to pay for their own arrests, in addition to other court fees, which is truly disturbing.

7) Illinois

One Illinois resident was jailed over a failure to appear notice despite being unaware that a debt collector had brought proceedings against her. As it turns out, no notices were ever mailed.

In debt collection cases, not all judges are familiar with state-by-state rights. This can result in unfair rulings, increasing the probability that someone will be jailed for unpaid debt and accompanying court fees.

Even guidance from the Supreme Court hasn’t put an end to this appalling trend, which effectively imprisons people for being poor. However, there is some hope.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice issued a sharp warning to some states that continue to engage in this practice. The DOJ advised the states to reevaluate their fee schedules and fee collection practices to ensure that they’re fairly administered.

In combination with the growing number of lawsuits and settlements pushing for justice reforms, maybe an end to modern-day debtor’s prisons is in sight.

Photo Credit: Dave Nakayama/Flickr

52 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallusabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Naomi Dreyer
Naomi Dreyerabout a year ago

WOW! California, too! Wow!

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Marie W.
Marie Wabout a year ago

CA surprises me; the other not so much.

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Don Z.
Don Zabout a year ago

The easiest way to avoid court fees is to obey the law, plain and simple. Making fines optional for the "poor" (they always have money for cigarettes and booze) is only going to make the rules optional, causing chaos everywhere.
No sympathy for those taken to court by bill collectors, either. Taking goods or services and failing to pay for them is called stealing.

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joanne p.
joanne pabout a year ago

ty

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sandra vito
Sandra Vitoabout a year ago

Thanks

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kabout a year ago

OMG !

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Danuta Watola
Danuta Wabout a year ago

Thank you so much for sharing

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Christopher Fowler
Christopher Fowlerabout a year ago

Being put in jail for unpaid child support is also one of the forms of debtor's prison. In the vast majority of cases that this happens, it is because the person, quite literally is unable to pay at all because there is not work or not a high enough wage that they can afford to do more than basic bills even for themselves (or worse, are homeless). They get around federal law violations against it by using "contempt of court" as the reason in most cases. In some cases, there are men (almost never women - can we talk sexism here, since women who have to pay almost never go to jail even when they flat out refuse) who have been in jail for years, simply because they are broke and without a job in a lousy economy where the jobs are just not there and the ones that are do not even pay a decent wage.

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David Youmans
David Yabout a year ago

Here's the thing, it's against federal law to imprison people for debts. Many of the states are doing it anyway. Where's the DOJ when this is being done? The Department of Justice, is supposed to stop this sort of thing from happening. These states are violating the law, but how do we put THEM in prison?

Any judge who sends someone to jail for debt, should be removed from the bench and disbarred. Any D. A. that prosecutes someone for debt, should be removed from office, and disbarred. This is an issue of states committing a federal offense. Why isn't our government doing something about it?

Because probably at least half of Congress, have investments in the private prison industry. More than half of them receive "campaign contributions" from the private prison industry.

That's why!

This is happening because of the level of corruption that's rampant in our government. It's rampant in our state governments as well.

Unless we kick the corrupt officials to the curb, anyone that isn't well off, is screwed, because the people that are corrupt, are also the people who have all the power. They don't care if the poor are mistreated, as long as they get the money they want, and live the extravagant lives that they want to.

There are far too many selfish people in this country these days...

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