Protecting vs. Policing: Indigent Defendants in Rhode Island’s Court Debt Collection Regime


Between about 2008 and 2015, the first eight years after Rhode Island passed it’s legislative reforms concerning court debt and arrests for nonpayment, the mean outstanding balance owed by people who were arrested for unpaid fines and fees rose by $256.

This thesis paper investigates who is being jailed in Rhode Island for outstanding court debt, how these arrests and jail commitments are being handled after the passing of the 2008 legislative reforms, and the effects incarceration has on people’s lives. The author cites jail commitment data and interviews with people who were arrested for failure to appear at payment court dates to argue that the 2008 legislative reforms were not adequately implemented and did not address the key issues perpetuated by the state’s debt collection regime. The author offers recommendations to reform Rhode Island’s court debt collection regime. 

You can read the full text of the thesis here

Key findings

  • In 1986, 12 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population was also charged a fine and/or fee, whereas in 2004, 66 percent were charged a fine and/or fee. 
  • Between 1994 and 2014, the number of unpaid criminal fines and fees pending at the end of the fiscal year increased by 150 percent, nationally. 
  • A survey of 11 states found an average of $178 million of outstanding court debt per state and at the end of 2014, 92 percent of the federal court debt balance was deemed uncollectible. 
  • In 2015, about 1,556 adults in Rhode Island were jailed for failure to appear at a payment court date and the mean outstanding balance was $1,082. 55 percent of these people had been previously jailed for failing to appear at a court payment date, and 84 percent had previously received at least one bench warrant for missing a payment court date.   
  • Rhode Island’s Superior and District court judges do not systematically or sufficiently assess the ability to pay of a person arrested for nonpayment of court debt.
  • In addition to their unpaid fines and fees, people were assessed a $125 warrant fee for every debt-related arrest. 


  • The legislature should reverse the process of assessing debts “unless proven indigent” so that ability to pay assessments can be conducted into the sentencing process instead of occurring after sentencing. 
  • Legislators should allocate funding for mail and text message missed payment date warnings that give people an opportunity to come to court voluntarily before a warrant is issued. 
  • The legislature should pursue reducing the number of court cost categories and eliminate some altogether. 

See the thesis for the full list of recommendations.

Rachel Black, Brown University
Brown University