Criminal Justice Debt in the South: A Primer for the Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt


People can be incarcerated for failure to pay fines and fees in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Criminal justice debt places a h

eavy burden on low-income families, often making it harder for those who owe to earn a living, trapping them and their families in poverty. This report uses examples from seven states in the south–Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas–to demonstrate the harmful consequences of criminal justice debt practices and provides policy recommendations to support advocates. The report shows examples of how criminal justice debt contributes to mass incarceration, deepens racial wealth gaps, impedes public safety, and costs the community as a whole.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Criminal justice collection methods include driver’s license suspension, arrest for nonpayment, and exclusion from criminal records expungement. 
  • In a survey of people convicted of crimes in Alabama, 44 percent of respondents took on payday loans to pay down criminal justice debt.
  • Black residents are 1.5 times more likely to be jailed for nonpayment than white residents in New Orleans.
  • Police solve violent crimes and property crimes at lower rates in cities where police departments collect more of their revenue from fees.
  • In 2015, New Orleans spent $6.4 million detaining people who could not afford their criminal justice debts or money bail.


  • Fund courts and law enforcement from state general revenue, not fines and fees.
  • Require ability to pay determinations before imposing fines or fees.
  • Eliminate fees, costs, and surcharges.
  • Ensure access to affordable payment plans with forgiveness opportunities.
  • Ensure probation cannot be imposed or extended solely because of criminal justice debt.
Abby Shafroth
National Consumer Law Center