Nobody should go to jail for failing to pay a debt. But every day, in cities across the country, that’s exactly what happens. Seeking to generate revenue, a growing number of jurisdictions are imposing exorbitant fines and court fees on individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system — and then detaining these men and women when they are unable to pay. Any infraction, such as a speeding ticket, is enough to ensnare low-income defendants in a brutal cycle of mounting debt, poverty, and incarceration. While the jailing of people who cannot pay fines has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the practice continues.
The Brennan Center has been at the forefront of calling attention to the tragic repercussions and questionable legality of these modern-day debtors’ prisons. In our report Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action, we identified five core recommendations for successful advocacy against the unfair imposition of fines and fees. We urge eliminating unnecessary interest, late fees, and collateral consequences (for example, suspending driver’s licenses), and ending incarceration for non-willful failure to pay.