Ending Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons

On the Ground - Local Campaigns

ACLU affiliates across the country have launched campaigns exposing courts that illegally and improperly jail people too poor to pay criminal justice debt, and seeking reform through public education, advocacy, and litigation.



In 2011, the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan filed lawsuits challenging "pay or stay" sentences imposed on five people who were jailed by Michigan courts for being too poor to pay court fines. The courts had ordered their incarceration for non-payment of criminal justice debt without affording hearings to determine their abilitytopay or providing the option of paying through payment plans or community service. Read More.

In 2013, the ACLU of Michigan, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Michigan State Planning Body filed an amicus brief in a debtors' prison case before the Michigan Court of Appeals, urging the issuance of guidance to lower courts to prevent debtors' prison practices.

In July 2015, the ACLU of Michigan filed a motion asking the  McComb County Circuit Court to take superintendent control over the courtroom of Judge Carl Gerds, who regularly imposes illegal “pay or stay” sentences on indigent men and women appearing before him.


In the latest pushback against the national scourge of debtors' prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an October 2015 federal lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and jailing of poor people in Biloxi, Mississippi, without a hearing or representation by counsel. Victims are told they can avoid jail only if they pay the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front, in full, and in cash. 

The percentage of people living in poverty in Biloxi has doubled since 2009. Yet during this period, the city, through the Biloxi Municipal Court, has aggressively pursued court fines and fee payments from indigent people by issuing warrants when payments are missed. The warrants charge debtors with failure to pay, order their arrest and jailing in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, and explicitly state that debtors can avoid jail only if they pay the full amount of fines and fees in cash.  The complaint, Kennedy v. City of Biloxi, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Gulfport and cites violations of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth and 14th Amendments. Read more.



In 2013, the ACLU of Ohio issued Outskirts of Hope, a report documenting blatantly illegal debtors' prisons around the state. In response, the Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice announced reforms to educate local courts on how to protect indigent defendants' rights. In February 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio released a new "bench card" giving much-needed instructions to Ohio judges to explain how to avoid debtors' prison practices in their courtrooms. Read more.



In 2014, the ACLU of Washington and Columbia Legal Services issued Modern-Day Debtors' Prisons: The Way Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor. The report exposes a counterproductive system for the collection of criminal justice debt. It calls for reform through legislative action and court rules. Read more.

In October 2015, the ACLU of Washington and the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against Benton County in central Washington over its unconstitutional system for collecting court-imposed debts. The lawsuit challenges the county’s practice of generating revenue by forcing manual labor on, threatening jail, and jailing indigent people who are unable to afford to pay fines, fees, costs, and restitution imposed by the county on criminal defendants.  Read more.



In 2014, the ACLU of Colorado sent letters to three cities, demanding a stop to the issuance of "pay-or-serve" warrants. These warrants had led to the arrest and jailing of poor people struggling to pay criminal justice debt without any consideration for, or inquiry into, their ability to pay. Through public education and advocacy, the ACLU of Colorado ultimately secured the passage of HB 1061, which was signed into law in May 2014 and now bans debtors' prisons in Colorado. Read more.

6.New Hampshire

New Hampshire

In 2014, the ACLU of New Hampshire secured the release of three people imprisoned for failing to pay court-imposed fines that they simply could not afford. Most recently, it filed a successful petition for habeas corpus for Richard Vaughan, a man sentenced to 18 days in jail for failing to pay a $895 fine that he could not afford. In the underlying criminal proceeding, Mr. Vaughn was not represented by counsel even though he was unemployed, looking for work, and could not afford a lawyer. Read more.



In January 2015, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit challenging debt collection practices that have resulted in the jailing of people simply because they are poor. The case was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a black teenager in DeKalb County, Georgia. The ACLU charges that DeKalb County and the for-profit company Judicial Corrections Services teamed up to engage in a coercive debt collection scheme that focuses on revenue generation at the expense of protecting poor people's rights.

Debt collection practices like these have had a devastating impact on people of color in the Atlanta metropolitan area. While blacks make up 54 percent of the DeKalb County population, nearly all probationers jailed by the DeKalb County Recorders Court for failure to pay are black – a pattern replicated by other Georgia courts. Read more.


In August 2015, the ACLU of Louisiana released, Louisiana’s Debtor’s Prisons:  An Appeal to Justice.  The report documents the routine jailing of poor people across the state solely for their failure to pay court-imposed fines and fees.   The report calls for a slate of reforms to end debtor’s prison practices.  These include enforcing state and federal law requiring judges to hold indigency hearings, creating sliding scales of fines, imposing meaningful community service instead of jail time, and advising defendants of their right to counsel if they face possible incarceration for unpaid fines. In addition, the ACLU asks for a "bench card" to remind judges in all courts across the state that jail is not a punishment for poverty.

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