Why Motive Matters: Designing Effective Policy Responses to Modern Debtors’ Prisons


Courts seldom grant statutorily authorized fine and fee waivers for indigent defendants.

In this essay, Marsh and Gerrick challenge the most common justification for why debtors’ prisons still exist in present-day America: generating revenue to fund local government and courts. The authors argue that revenue generation is an “incomplete explanation” for debtor’s prisons and point to a variety of other factors that could help complete the picture.

The last section of the article discusses the potential benefits and drawbacks of six reforms proposed by advocates working to eliminate this destructive practice.

You can read the full text here. 

Key Findings
  • “Incarceration for debt is fiscally irrational in most individual cases, because governments are effectively doubling their losses by adding incarceration and other enforcement costs to accumulated criminal justice debts that can never be collected.”
  • “Even at a conservative[ly] estimated incarceration cost of $50 per day, Augusta [Georgia] spent approximately $3,000 in a fruitless attempt to collect $800, for a net loss of $3,800.”
  • Aside from private probation, this article identifies the following common practices that produce debtor’s prisons: failure to consider an individual’s ability to pay, ability to pay determinations “based on subjective and arguably inappropriate criteria,” people who have no choice but to go to jail because they can’t pay their fines immediately, and lack of alternatives to fines and
  • Courts seldom grant statutorily authorized fine and fee waivers for indigent defendants: “For example, in 2013, Houston granted indigence waivers in only ten cases, while jailing people for nonpayment in 71,692 cases.”
Andrea Marsh, Emily Gerrick
Yale Law & Policy Review, Vol. 34: Iss. 1, Article 3