Justice in the U.S. comes at a cost. Can’t pay? You may end up in jail.


“Samantha Jenkins has been jailed 19 times over the span of 15 years for her inability to pay court fines” — Aeon Documentary

Debtors’ prisons were abolished in the 19th century in the United States. Yet, today thousands of people in the U.S. face imprisonment for their inability to pay justice-related administrative fees. Disproportionately affecting low income and marginalized communities — regardless of past conviction history — the monetization of the justice system in this country is not only ineffective, it’s counterproductive.

1.5 billion people have a criminal; civil or administrative justice problem they cannot solve. They are part of the 5.1 billion people across the world that have fallen into the ‘justice gap’ — lacking meaningful access to justice. The U.S. is not exempt from this statistic. The current ‘debtors prison’ model in this country–attaching fees and other costs to justice services–illustrates how rather than working to meet the needs of the people it serves; justice institutions are further disenfranchising the disadvantaged.

A modern day ‘debtors’ prison’

A building in Accomack County, Va., which served as a debtor’s prison from 1824 to 1849.
Source: Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, and Selby Simpson. Debtor’s Prison, State Route 764, Accomac, Accomack County, VA. Accomac Accomack County Virginia, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/va0002/.

Before July of this year, an individual in the U.S. owing $575 in court and administrative fees and fines would have their driver’s license suspended, all money owed can be unrelated to driving. They would then be informed that they must pay in order to have their license reinstated, with a few stipulations:

  • A $125 reinstatement fee will be charged in addition to the fines
  • They may not legally drive to and from work to earn money to pay off the debt
  • Interest on the debt will accrue.

This would leave them with two choices: (1) take the risk and drive with no license (an act, which if caught, will lead to more fines and potential jail time) or (2) find alternative ways to get to work, typically lengthy, infrequent and unreliable options. The second choice would jeopardize an individual’s employment, meaning he/she would have no way of paying the amount already owed, and would risk being further propelled into poverty. Both options likely to trap them in a vicious cycle. This was the case for over 200,000 Virginians until this summer.

“It’s scary being behind the wheel without that license. I’m always paranoid. … You see a cop and say, ‘Let me get to work, let me get to work.’ … You don’t want to go to jail, but you gotta pay your bills and take care of your kids,” a women discussing her experience shared. Virginia stopped suspending individuals drivers licenses as of July this year, however this law doesn’t address these fines nor is the practice banned for good.

The consequences of monetizing justice services can be life altering. Throughout the country fines and fees for misdemeanors, probation, and various other charges including “room and board” fees billed by jails for an individual’s time spent behind bars quickly become insurmountable. In one case featured in the ACLU report “In for a Penny,” one man owed over $3,000 dollars in legal fees owed to the state. He missed two monthly payments, totaling $60 and was then incarcerated for two weeks. (The incarceration alone cost the county nearly $2,000, a significantly higher amount than they will ever recoup from the individual and a high price tag for injustice.)

While these amounts could likely be paid by middle class Americans, they are unfathomable for those making less. Those unable to pay — a group that is disproportionately made up of individuals belonging to a lower economic class — find themselves pushed deeper and deeper into the justice gap. Examples of this ineffective and harsh approach are seemingly endless.

“I’m wondering what would happen if I was unable to pay a speeding ticket. Would I lose my driving license?”

“What do you mean?” [Corinth, Mississippi municipal court staff] responded. “You’d go to jail.”

Source: Shutterstock

The stories of community members in Corinth, Mississippi, where 25% of the population live below or at the federal poverty line, illustrate what can happen when financial punishments are imposed on those who cannot pay. Speaking of their experiences, community members described the concept of “sitting it out”, a literal embodiment of a debtors’ prison. “Sitting it out” occurs when defendants are offered a choice: “pay up or serve x number of days in jail until the debt is paid down.” Those who cannot afford to pay are sent directly to jail to “sit it out,” waiting to reach the number of days required to pay off the debt, sometimes weeks and months. This further embroils individuals in a cycle that criminalizes poverty; one of debt, lost jobs, and unfulfilled life obligations. Not even children are exempt from this unfair system. Jurisdictions across the country are legally able to “charge children and their parents and guardians for youth detention, supervision and electronic monitoring. Many even charge families for their children’s “free” public defenders.”

Examples abound, but the real question is what can be done?

Rethinking the U.S. justice system

It doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than imposing fees as a source of municipal income and jailing those who are unable to pay — the cost of which has been proven by the ACLU and various other sources to be greater than the amount owed by these individuals and inherently benefiting those of a higher economic class — justice reforms in the U.S. should prioritize a preventive and people-centered approach.

Challenging the assumption that handing down a financial punishment will lead to real change is key to this alternative approach. Rather than promoting fees, a preventive approach prioritizes measures that break the cycle and support an individual’s journey to get on back on their feet. As the Task Force on Justice explains; “prevention seeks to understand how laws, regulations and policies can tackle structural injustices.” In this particular case, a practical recommendation is directed at prosecutors who, as Pound of Flesh author, Alexes Harris puts it, “can search for measures that are proven to decrease recidivism, promote free drug and alcohol treatment programs, low-cost housing, restorative justices and job training.”

Despite deep-rooted problems, positive strides towards a more equitable justice system in the U.S. are being made. Across the country, more and more administrative fees are being eliminated for those who have served prison time. A leading example of this is the County of San Francisco, which forgave criminal justice fees in August of 2018, arguing that “lightening the burden on the recently incarcerated would help everyone… After all, the aim is to support former inmates to become productive citizens. Forgiving the debt not only made individuals’ lives easier but also helped the city run more successfully.”

To see real change, that not only addresses the far reaching effects of this practice and sets the course for a better future, we need more action.

Justice for All means equitable and fair resolutions of justice problems for everyone, both rich and poor. Debtors’ prisons were abolished in the 19th century; their modern day version can and should be stopped.

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Alisa Jimenez
Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Program Associate, Justice at Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, hosted by NYU Center on International Cooperation