Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment, such as community service.

In response, since 2009 the ACLU and ACLU affiliates across the country have been exposing and challenging modern-day debtors’ prisons and urging governments and courts to pursue more rational and equitable approaches to criminal justice debt.

Debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs. They lead to coercive debt collection, forcing poor people to forgo the basic necessities of life in order to avoid arrest and jailing. Debtors’ prisons waste taxpayer money and resources by jailing people who may never be able to pay their debts. This imposes direct costs on the government and further destabilizes the lives of poor people struggling to pay their debts and leave the criminal justice system behind. And, most troubling, debtors’ prisons create a racially skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor.

Ultimately, debtors’ prisons are not only unfair, but they are also illegal. Imprisoning someone because she cannot afford to pay court-imposed fines or fees violates the Fourteenth Amendment promises of due process and equal protection under the law.

The ACLU and ACLU affiliates are uncovering how debtors’ prisons across the country undermine the criminal justice system and threaten civil rights and civil liberties. We are working in state legislatures and courts and with judicial officials to end these practices once and for all.

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