The Rise of “Debtors’ Prisons” in the US

PrisonCellSubmitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

In October of 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report titled In for a Penny: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons. The ACLU had found that debtors’ prisons were “flourishing” in this country, “more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts.” In 2011, Huffington Post reported that debtors’ prisons were legal in more than one-third of the states in this country.

According to the ACLU report, some state and local governments “have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts. These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and resources, undermine our criminal justice system, are racially skewed, and create a two-tiered system of justice.”

Marie Diamond—writing for ThinkProgress in December 2011:

Federal imprisonment for unpaid debt has been illegal in the U.S. since 1833. It’s a practice people associate more with the age of Dickens than modern-day America. But as more Americans struggle to pay their bills in the wake of the recession, collection agencies are using harsher methods to get their money, ushering in the return of debtor’s prisons.

Two years ago, the Wall Street Journal reported—after interviewing twenty judges across the country—that the number of borrowers who were threatened with arrest in their courtrooms had “surged since the financial crisis began.” The Wall Street Journal added that some borrowers who were jailed had “no idea before being locked up that they were sued to collect an outstanding debt” because of sloppy, incomplete or even false documentation.” Diamond said it was becoming more and more common for debtors to serve time in jail. She added that some debtors are even required to pay for their time spent in jail—which, she said, exacerbates their dire financial situations.

Back in 2011, NPR told the story of what happened to an Illinois woman named Robin Sanders:

She [Robin Sanders] was driving home when an officer pulled her over for having a loud muffler. But instead of sending her off with a warning, the officer arrested Sanders, and she was taken right to jail.

“That’s when I found out [that] I had a warrant for failure to appear in Macoupin County. And I didn’t know what it was about.”

Sanders owed $730 on a medical bill. She says she didn’t even know a collection agency had filed a lawsuit against her.

“They say they send out these court notices, and nobody gets them,” Sanders says.

She spent four days in jail waiting for her father to raise $500 for her bail. That money was then turned over to the collection agency.

Just this month, the ACLU of Ohio published a report titled The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities. The ACLU found that many municipalities in Ohio “routinely imprison those who are unable to pay fines and court costs despite a 1983 United States Supreme Court decision declaring this practice to be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.” The ACLU said that affluent residents of Ohio who are sentenced to pay fines after being convicted of a criminal or traffic offense can simply pay the fines and go on with their lives. The same does not hold true for “Ohio’s poor and working poor” who may not have the monetary resources to pay their fines. Such people may find themselves at the “beginning of a protracted process that may involve contempt charges, mounting fees, arrest warrants, and even jail time. The stark reality is that, in 2013, Ohioans are being repeatedly jailed simply for being too poor to pay fines.”

Some Findings from The Outskirts of Hope:

Debtors’ Prisons In Ohio

• Despite clear constitutional and legislative prohibitions, debtors’ prison practices are alive and well throughout Ohio. An investigation by the ACLU of Ohio uncovered conclusive evidence of these practices in 7 of the 11 Ohio counties examined.

• Courts in Huron, Cuyahoga, and Erie counties are among the worst offenders. In the second half of 2012, over 20% of all bookings in the Huron County Jail were related to failure to pay fines. In Cuyahoga County, the Parma Municipal Court jailed at least 45 people for failure to pay fines and costs between July 15 and August 31, 2012. During the same period in Erie County, the Sandusky Municipal Court jailed at least 75 people for similar charges.

• Based on the ACLU of Ohio’s investigation, there is no evidence that any of these people were given hearings to determine whether or not they were financially able to pay their fines, as required by the law.

The ACLU of Ohio reported that the U.S. Constitution, the Ohio Constitution, and Ohio Revised Code all prohibit debtors’ prisons. It said that the courts are required by law to determine whether an individual is too poor to pay a fine before jailing the person. It added that “debtors’ prisons actually waste taxpayer dollars by arresting and incarcerating people who will simply never be able to pay their fines, which are in any event usually smaller than the amount it costs to arrest and jail them.”

According to CBS News, “high rates of unemployment and government fiscal shortfalls that followed the housing crash have increased the use of debtors’ prisons, as states look for ways to replenish their coffers.”  Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, said, “It’s like drawing blood from a stone. States are trying to increase their revenue on the backs of the poor.” He added, “It’s a growing problem nationally, particularly because of the economic crisis.”

Does it make sense to jail poor people for failure to pay their fines when jailing them only drives them deeper into debt and also “costs counties more than the actual debt because of the cost of arresting and incarcerating individuals?”


“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

– President Lyndon B. Johnson (State of the Union, 1964)



The Outskirts of Hope: How Ohio’s Debtors’ Prisons Are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities (ACLU)

IN FOR A PENNY: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons (ACLU)

Report: Ohio Is Illegally Throwing Poor People In Jail For Owing Money (Think Progress)

The Return Of Debtor’s Prisons: Thousands Of Americans Jailed For Not Paying Their Bills (Think Progress)

Debtors’ Prison Legal In More Than One-Third Of U.S. States (Huffington Post)

Debtor Arrests Criticized (Wall Street Journal)

Welcome to Debtors’ Prison, 2011 Edition (Wall Street Journal)

Modern-day debtors’ prison alleged in Ohio (NBC/AP)

Unpaid Bills Land Some Debtors Behind Bars (NPR)

Modern-day debtors’ prison alleged in Ohio  (NBC News)

As economy flails, debtors’ prisons thrive (CBS)

154 thoughts on “The Rise of “Debtors’ Prisons” in the US”

  1. @Donna Van Cleve – No I don’t think so. Jonathan runs a JavaScript profanity filter. If you hit CTRL-F on your keyboard and type each cuss word you can think of I do not think you’ll find one here. Unless someone deliberately misspelled it horribly I don’t think it will get through.

    What you could do is open NOTEBOOK.EXE on your PC. Come here and do a CRTL-A, then CTRL-C, then go to NOTEPAD and do a CTRL-V. Then using the REPLACE command in Notepad you can type in a cuss word and give it another kinder less rude word or just a bunch of random characters. It will globally replace every target word in the article that you typed in. Then you could just present that to the class. However, I don’t think there are any in this article as I did look. Could be wrong…

  2. I would like to be able to recommend pages like this for educational websites for school, but when the comments are on the same page, someone invariably has to drop the f-bomb in their comment, and that automatically causes it to be rejected. If you’d put the comments on a separate page/link, we could still use the article. Just a suggestion. : )

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