How Modern Debtors’ Prisons are Using Fees to Tear Apart Families

Every day, families across the country are ripped apart as loved ones are thrown in jail for the “crime” of not being able to afford fines and fees imposed by courts for traffic offenses, civil infractions and misdemeanors. We’re incarcerating people because they live in poverty, effectively landing them in a new form of debtors’ prison. For single mothers—who are far more likely to live in poverty—the consequences are nothing short of devastating.

Gina Taggart, a Washington state single mother with a young child, was jailed for court fines and fees she could not afford to pay because she was homeless and unemployed. Qumotria Kennedy, a single mother of two teens, was pulled over, arrested and jailed for five nights in Mississippi because she could not afford to pay traffic fines; her teenaged daughter didn’t know where she was all night, and only learned of her incarceration when an ACLU attorney brought a note from Kennedy home to her.

Across the U.S., state and local courts charge hefty fees to people convicted of even low-level offenses—fees for things like court administration, public defenders, prosecutors and probation supervision. These fees can pile up on top of fines to create crippling debts that are impossible for many people to pay and trigger additional charges and interest for failure to pay. Many state and local courts face powerful incentives to collect unpaid fines and fees, using aggressive and even coercive means, because these monies often contribute to court funding and other government revenue streams.

In 15 states across—including Arkansas, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Ohio, Alabama and Louisiana—courts have been exposed for routinely arresting and jailing people who live in desperate poverty and fall behind on court fines and fee payments without giving them the opportunity to explain why they cannot pay or seek alternatives like reduced payment amounts, payment plans and community service.

Cayeshia Johnson supported three young children in South Carolina by working three part-time jobs. She was ticketed after a minor car accident—but while she was working diligently to schedule a court date to set up a payment plan, a court found her guilty and sentenced her to pay fines and fees immediately, without determining if she could actually afford to do so. It also issued a warrant ordering her to be jailed unless she paid the $1,287.50 fee in full. Johnson had no idea the warrant existed until she was arrested at a traffic stop and jailed for 55 days because she couldn’t pay it on the spot.

Johnson was separated from her kids for almost two months by a court that never gave her a hearing, considered her ability to pay or informed her of the right to request counsel. She lost all three of her part-time jobs, placing an enormous financial burden on her family. The debtors’ prison that ensnared her only drew her and her family deeper into financial distress.

These 21st-century debtors’ prisons impose a devastating toll on families living in poverty. Mothers like Johnson have to choose between paying for basic necessities like food and shelter for their families or risk being jailed because they cannot pay court fines and fees. Debtors’ prisons waste tax dollars: Instead of spending money to lock her up, the court that ordered Johnson to be jailed could have assessed her ability to pay and given her a reasonable payment plan.

The gravest injustice of debtors’ prisons is that they lead to a racially-biased, two-tiered justice system that sentences people without financial resources to longer, harsher punishments for the same infractions as compared to others who can afford to pay. Far from being blind, courts that operate debtors’ prisons see green and go easy on those who can buy their way out of jail. This practice is deeply unfair and unconstitutional. Jailing someone because they cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees is a direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises due process and equal protection under the law.

We must consider the thousands of poor parents in jail who will spend nights, perhaps even months, away from their children just because they don’t have the money to buy their way out. Leaders of state and local courts should ensure that no family is torn apart simply because they live in poverty.


Nusrat Choudhury is a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.