Is being poor punishable by imprisonment? Should only those who can afford it be allowed freedom?

Neil Sobol, Associate Professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, explores the topic of imprisonment for debt in the article, “Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debt & Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons.”

In colonial times in the United States, individuals were commonly imprisoned for their debt. Now, despite prohibitions against it,  poor and needy individuals are regularly incarcerated for unpaid debts. 

These “modernday debtors’ prisons” have been the subject of at least ten lawsuits in 2015 against municipalities who used them, primarily for criminal justice debt. 


For example, January 2015, in Georgia:

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging debt collection practices that have resulted in the jailing of people simply because they are poor. The case was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia. The ACLU charges that DeKalb County and the for-profit company Judicial Corrections Services teamed up to engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focuses on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people’s rights.

The ACLU tells us that “State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.”

The effects of this system are daunting. Prof. Sobol states:

“The impact of criminal justice debt is especially severe on the poor and minorities as they are frequently assessed “poverty penalties” for interest, late fees, installment plans, and collection. Often they have to decide between paying criminal justice debt and buying family necessities. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore have prompted renewed calls for investigation of the adverse treatment of the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. The fear of arrest, incarceration, and unfair treatment for those owing criminal justice debt creates distrust in the system.”

Neil L. Sobol, Charging the Poor: Criminal Justice Debt & Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons, 75 Md. L. Rev. 486 (2016).
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2 thoughts on “Too Poor to Afford Freedom

  1. I read about this topic and I would like to learn more about it from you. It is usually on contempt of court charges if the person fails to pay the fine on time. I remember one reading one article that say guy just got a job, but since he didn’t have the money on his court date, judge tossed him into jail. Since he was in jail, he couldn’t go to work and then lost his ability to pay the fine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would be happy to write more about this topic. I would think punishment would also depend on the specific jurisdiction your in and what they define as being in “contempt” of the court. This would require researching case law for your state or district if you haven’t already done so.

      Federally, in Turner v. Rogers, 564 U.S. 431, a father who was incarcerated in civil contempt proceedings for failure to pay child support was entitled counsel, even though due process did not require counsel in all such proceedings, since the State did not provide clear notice that the father’s ability to pay was the critical question and made no findings concerning such ability.

      That is a very specific case tailored to child support payments but there may have been instances of persons being held in contempt of court for inability to pay a court fee, there may even be a supreme court ruling more on point.

      In the case of Turner v. Rogers, the Supreme Court stated that “civil contempt differs from criminal contempt in that it seeks only to coerce a defendant to do what a court had previously ordered him to do. The court may not impose punishment in a civil contempt proceeding when it is clearly established that the alleged contemnor is unable to comply with the terms of the order. And once a civil contemnor complies with the underlying order, he is purged of the contempt and is free.”

      Also,” where civil contempt is at issue, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause allows a State to provide fewer procedural protections than in a criminal case” which may play into this person’s ability to be appointed counsel.


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