In For A Penny- The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons

The landmark 1983 Supreme Court decision, Bearden v. Georgia, provided protections against the practice of jailing people based on their poverty. Despite these protections, people who cannot afford to pay their court fines and fees are still being incarcerated for nonpayment. This report presents the findings of a year-long investigation into the assessment and collection of fines and fees in five states: Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington. This publication uses personal accounts of people who struggled to pay their court debt to illustrate the negative effects of debtors’ prisons on individuals, the economy, and the justice system. General and state-specific recommendations are provided to address these practices. 

You can read the full text of the report here

Key findings

  • In Louisiana, a $100 late fee is imposed upon people who cannot make timely payments according to the schedule determined by the court. People may be held in contempt and jailed for nonpayment, typically for five to 30 days. Participation in a diversion or treatment program can cost around $600 per mouth and if a person defaults on the program fees, he or she is dropped from the program and risks incarceration.  
  • In Michigan, a person can be held in jail longer than their original sentence if they do not pay the $12 jail entry fee. If fines and fees are not paid within 56 days of the due date, a 20 percent late fee can be imposed. Paying fines and fees are often a condition of probation and a person cannot claim his or her indigence until the judge imposes fines and fees.   
  • A number of Ohio residents have been unlawfully held in jail longer than they should have been despite satisfying their court debt with the number of days they spent in jail pursuant to the $50 per day jail credit policy. 
  • In Georgia, monthly fees that must be paid to private probation companies make people less able to afford and pay down their base fine and other costs originally assessed by the court. 
  • At the time of this report, research showed that some Washington counties operated on “auto-jail” policies which require defendants to report to jail if they cannot afford their fines and fees and subject them to arrest if they do not report. Nonpayment of rehabilitation program costs has also served as a path back to jail. 
  • Because of the 12 percent interest fee assessed on unpaid fines and fees, restitution, and other court costs, many Washington residents are not able to pay off their court debt for years and sometimes decades.



  • Courts must consider a defendant’s ability to pay when determining whether to assess fines, fees, and costs, and when deciding whether a failure to pay is willful. 
  • States should repeal all laws that may result in poor defendants being punished more severely than defendants charged with the same offenses who have means. This includes statutes authorizing courts to charge fees to indigent defendants who are appointed counsel, and statutes that impose penalties or interest on unpaid fines and fees. 
  • Consistent guidelines regarding determination of indigence and policies for assessing and collecting fines and fees should be implemented in every jurisdiction to guard against arbitrary or racially skewed discrepancies in punishment. 
  • Judges and other court officials should receive training in and comply with federal and state laws that prohibit incarceration of defendants who are too poor to pay fines and fees and require a determination of ability to pay before incarceration. Judges should appoint counsel to defendants at proceedings to determine whether to impose or modify fines and fees, or whether to sanction defendants for nonpayment. Alternatives to payment of fines and fees such as community service should be made available. 
  • All jurisdictions should collect and publish data regarding the assessment and collection of fines and fees, the costs of collections (including the cost of incarceration), and how collected funds are distributed, broken down by race, type of crime, geographical location, and type of court. 
  • Courts should be adequately funded so they do not have to rely on the collection of fines and fees for a substantial portion of their operating budgets.
American Civil Liberties Union