Forgotten But Not Gone: A Multi-State Analysis of Modern-Day Debt Imprisonment


64 percent of people booked for Failure to Pay In Texas and Wisconsin charges were associated with traffic-related offenses.

The majority of states allow imprisonment as a direct result of failing to pay (FTP) court debt. This report presents findings from a three-state case study that sought to estimate the prevalence of failure to pay jailings and their impact. Researchers examining data from Texas and Wisconsin jail bookings and court records from 2005 to 2018, as well as Oklahoma court records detailing fines and fees, identified a notable prevalence of debt-related jailings. They found that low-level traffic offenses are a driver of debt imprisonment. This analysis concludes with recommendations to policymakers on methods to alleviate debt imprisonment’s social and financial costs.

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • 8,000 jailings per year occurred in Wisconsin for failure to pay, and 38,000 jailings per year in Texas between 2005 and 2018.
  • As a result of FTP jailings, the average court debtor in Texas spent 2.1 days in jail and 6.2 days in Wisconsin. 
  • The average court debtor in Oklahoma who was issued an FTP warrant was originally assessed about $500 in traffic-related fines, fees, and other costs, $1,600 for misdemeanor cases, or $3,700 in felony cases.
  • In Texas and Wisconsin, Black individuals are overrepresented in FTP bookings relative to their share of the population living below the poverty line.


  • Use alternative sanctions such as community service instead of aggressive fines and fee sanctions.
  • Reduce the fines and fees associated with petty offenses to reduce the harm related to an inability to pay.
  • Disincentivize courts’ reliance on fine revenue. 
  • States should centrally track FTP warrants and jailings.
Johann D. Gaebler, Phoebe Barghouty, Sarah Vicol, Cheryl Phillips, & Sharad Goe