Court Debt and Related Incarceration in Rhode Island from 2005 through 2007


Individuals incarcerated for court debt owed on average $826.


Rhode Island’s most frequent cause of incarceration is court debt, which not only causes inefficient use of state finances, but disrupts people’s lives. To determine the extent to which incarceration is used to collect court debt, the Rhode Island Family Center reviewed Department of Corrections and Judiciary data from 2005 to 2007. Interviews with 25 individuals in the Intake Service Center of the Adult Correctional Institute highlighted the challenges they faced after being incarcerated for court debt and their difficulties reentering the community. The authors find Rhode Island’s system of court debt to be more punitive, more costly, and less accommodating than other New England states.

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Key Findings:

  • In 2007, 18 percent of those incarcerated in Rhode Island were there solely for missing an Ability to Pay Hearing. 
  • 66% of the people jailed for court debt were first-time offenders or showed up at least three times consecutively.
  • In 2005 and 2006, an average of 24 people were  incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) for court debt every day.
  • 53 percent of individuals incarcerated for court debt did not receive a fine as part of their sentence; their debt consists of only court cost and warrant fees.
  • The court adds on $93.50 for each misdemeanor charge and $270 or $450 for each felony charge based on the seriousness of the offense. 
  • 66 percent of court costs for misdemeanors go to the general revenue, 33 percent goes to a fund to compensate victims of violent crimes, and the rest goes to the arresting agency.
  • The Rhode Island District and Superior Courts assessed over $20 million in court fines and cost in FY 2007; their four year collection rate is 77 percent.
  • Rhode Island’s Department of Correction estimates a  $95/day per person cost of incarceration at the Intake Service Center.
  • In 2007, the vast majority of those incarcerated for court debt spent an average of three nights in prison; only 17 percent made bail.
  • After the passage of House Bill 2006-7006/Senate Bill 2006-2326 amended state statute to credit individuals $125 for every day spent in jail for failure to appear or pay court fines and costs, the number of people held at ACI fell from 24 a day to 18 a day and fewer individuals posted bail.
  • Individuals interviewed reported missing Ability to Pay Hearings most commonly because they forgot, were never informed, or could not afford transportation. 
  • Collateral consequences for those incarcerated for court debt included lost employment, interruption of medical and rehabilitation treatment, and disruption of housing situations.


  • Reduce the amount of time people are held in jail awaiting Ability to Pay Hearings to no more than 48 hours.
  • Assess ability to pay when assessing court fines and costs.
  • Use incarceration as a last resort in collection methods.
  • Reduce the warrant fee from $125 to $25.
  • Legislation should define conditions for a defendant to be deemed indigent and provide judges with discretion to waive court costs for indigent individuals.



Rhode Island Family Life Center