Jailing The Poor: Court Debt And Incarceration In RI

  • Court debt is the most common reason people in Rhode Island are jailed, accounting for 17 percent of all jailings and about 2,500 incidents annually. One-third of people jailed for court debt is held for at least three days and 11 percent remain in custody for more than a week. 

This policy brief describes how often people in Rhode Island are jailed for nonpayment of court fines and fees. The author compares the state of this issue in Rhode Island to the way it plays out in other New England states. This publication argues for the end of this practice by discussing the barriers to court debt repayment, providing recommendations, and including personal narratives. 

You can read the full text of the policy brief here. 

Key findings

  • In 2007, 11 people were held in jail for court debt for longer than two weeks and one person remained in custody for 41 days. 
  • In 15 percent of cases, the state spends more money to jail a person than the amount that is owed by him or her for court debt. 
  • Every year, the state spends about $500,000 to incarcerate people who owe court debt. 


  • Consider a person’s ability to pay when assessing court debt.
  • Take advantage of a variety of collection methods before using incarceration to coerce payment. 
  • Cap the amount of time a person is held in jail awaiting an ability to pay hearing to 48 hours.
Family Life Center
Family Life Center