Too Poor to Pay: How Arkansas’s Offender-Funded Justice System Drives Poverty & Mass Incarceration

This report identifies several promising issue areas for fines and fees reform in Arkansas, including nonpayment incarceration, driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines and fees, and probation fees. The authors interviewed 205 people who were charged and/or incarcerated over inability to pay fines and fees; performed court-watching in 8 counties; sent almost 300 records requests; and interviewed Arkansas criminal justice and social service stakeholders.

You can read the full text of the report here.

Key Findings
  • Arkansas state law requires judges to determine a defendant’s ability to pay before incarcerating them for nonpayment, but fails to specify which types of information judges can consider when making that determination. This leads judges to consider irrelevant factors, e.g. whether the defendants own smartphones or have tattoos.
  • Judges are not making use of lenient clauses in Arkansas Fines Collection Law, e.g. allowing additional time for payment, reducing total fines and fees owed, or waiving fines altogether.
  • Missed payments for fines and fees frequently lead to charges for failure to pay, failure to appear, and contempt. All of those charges result in additional fines and penalties.
  • Arkansas courts frequently use arrest warrants, nonpayment incarceration, and driver’s license suspensions to enforce payment of court debt. Some judges do not even credit jail time against total fines and fees owed.
  • Courts should adopt judicial bench cards detailing procedures for determining ability to pay consistent with Arkansas Fines Collection Law. Bench cards should also advise judges of defendants’ right to be represented by legal counsel for defense against possible incarceration for failure to pay.
  • Potential ability to pay standards might include eligibility for appointed counsel, income at or below 200% of poverty guidelines, or whether the defendant is receiving public assistance.
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law