Jailing Debtors

September 16, 2016 • Volume 26, Issue 32
Should people be jailed for unpaid fines?
By Christina Hoag


Kareem Chappelle (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
Kareem Chappelle was unable to post $600 for bail in November 2015 when he turned himself in after missing a court date stemming from a charge of possessing a small amount of crack cocaine. Chappelle was jailed for more than a month and lost his home, car and job. “It just didn't seem fair,” said Chappelle. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The United States outlawed the practice of imprisoning people for failure or inability to pay their debts more than two centuries ago, and several Supreme Court rulings have supported that prohibition. Yet local courts are jailing people for debts stemming from minor infractions such as unpaid parking tickets without regard to their ability to pay. Moreover, to cover rising administrative expenses, many courts are making defendants pay for public defenders, probation supervisors and jail cells — costs that traditionally have been a state responsibility — and people unable to pay are locked up. Local officials say defendants who use the criminal justice system should shoulder its costs. But the Department of Justice is urging the adoption of a more equitable punishment system, and civil rights advocates charge that jailing debtors criminalizes poverty, disproportionately affects minorities and leads to a modern form of debtors' prisons. Meanwhile, reformists are advocating an overhaul of the bail system, which can leave people without money behind bars while awaiting trial.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Law Enforcement
Apr. 21, 2017  High-Tech Policing
Sep. 16, 2016  Jailing Debtors
Jun. 07, 2016  Crime and Police Conduct
Apr. 06, 2012  Police Misconduct
Oct. 14, 2011  Eyewitness Testimony
May 06, 2011  Business Ethics
Mar. 17, 2000  Policing the Police
Nov. 24, 1995  Police Corruption
Sep. 06, 1991  Police Brutality
Apr. 19, 1974  Police Innovation
Sep. 02, 1966  Police Reforms
Jan. 12, 1954  Federal Police Activity
Apr. 01, 1932  Proposed Expansions of Federal Police Activity
Consumer Credit and Debt
Crime and Law Enforcement
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
Legal Professions and Resources
Sentencing and Corrections