Unequal Justice Bail and Modern Day Debtors’ Prison in Nebraska


In each county, court observers witnessed “pay or stay” sentences, where defendants without an attorney present were told if they did not pay money that day, they would be forced to sit out their fine in jail.

The imposition of bail and monetary sanctions on indigent Nebraskans has led to individuals held pretrial making up half of the state’s local jail populations, and others sitting out their fines in jail. Through surveys of the four largest counties in Nebraska, open record requests, court record reviews, court observations, and interviews with people involved in the system, this report investigates Nebraska’s modern-day debtors’ prisons. The authors found many practices that do not comply with state laws limiting bail to defendants who may leave the jurisdiction or hurt someone in the community and prohibiting incarceration for a fine or cost a person is unable to pay because of their financial condition. 

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • Nonviolent pretrial defendants spend an average of 48 days in jail if they cannot afford to post bond, costing Douglas county $83.40 per day and Hall County $88 per day.
  • Each judicial district sets its bail schedule leading to discrepancies from county to county for the same offense; bail for driving with a suspended license is $2,500 in Lancaster County, but zero dollars in Douglas County.
  • People of color are imposed $14,572 more than the average bond for a nonviolent offense.
  • Although people of color make up 10 percent of Nebraskans, they make up 50 percent of Nebraska’s pretrial jail population.
  • Defendants are given two months to pay their fines and court costs, and they may request extensions by coming to court and asking the judge; however, those who are unable to pay or are denied an extension are issued warrants and arrested.
  • Defendants who are issued fines are not issued public defenders if the prosecutor is not seeking jail time.
  • Judges did not inquire about the defendant’s ability to pay during court observations.
  • Few defendants had attorneys during court observations.


  • Create a commission of experts to evaluate best practices in modern bail systems.
  • Develop risk assessments for defendants awaiting their initial appearance that calculates one’s public safety risk to determine eligibility for release.
  • Use reminder systems to reduce the number of failures to appear.
  • Judges should assess a defendant’s ability to pay prior to issuing fines, fees and costs.
  • The Nebraska Supreme Court should create policies for assessing fines, fees and costs.
  • Counsel should be appointed to defendants before imposing bail, fines, fees or court costs.
  • Courts should collect data on pretrial detention and release, the assessment and collection of fines, fees and court costs, and publish detailed reports.
ACLU of Nebraska