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 2016 the ACLU of Arkansas, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Morrison and Foerster law firm filed a federal proposed class action lawsuit challenging a debtors’ prison in the City of Sherwood and Pulaski County. The City of Sherwood’s “hot check” court is part of a labyrinthine and lucrative system in which defendants charged with bouncing even a single for $15 have ultimately been charged thousands of dollars in court costs, fines, and fees payable to the city and the county. In this process, indigent people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees are routinely incarcerated in violation of their constitutional rights. Read More.


In 2016, the ACLU of Northern California, along with a coalition of legal organizations, sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles for illegally suspending the driver’s licenses of low-income Californians. Many Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay the exorbitant fines and fees associated with a routine traffic citation. State law allows the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the licenses of people who have willfully failed to pay these fines and fees, but most California traffic courts do not give drivers a meaningful opportunity to prove that their failure to pay is due to poverty, rather than willful non-compliance. The statewide lawsuit was filed on behalf of drivers who have had their drivers licenses suspended in violation of their statutory, due process, and equal protection rights. 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.



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.


  1. 2015, the ACLU of Maine called for an end to practices that result in the jailing of indigent people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. (“called for” should hyperlink tohttps://www.aclumaine.org/en/news/prison-being-poor-time-end-debtors-prison-system-maine). It supported the passage of LD 951, a bill that would prohibit incarceration as a punishment for failure to pay a fine. Read More. (hyperlink “Read More” tohttps://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-maine-calls-legislature-end-debtors-prisons)


In 2016, the ACLU of Maine helped to secure the passage of LD 1639, which includes a critical provision to help curb debtors’ prisons. The law implements the recommendations of Maine’s Intergovernmental Pretrial Justice Reform Task Force, which was convened in 2015 to make recommendations to lessen the human and financial cost of keeping so many people in jail who don’t need to be there. A provision of the law permits courts to waive mandatory fines in some circumstances. This provision is a marked improvement in light of the trend of legislative enactments, starting in 2005, that made many fines for criminal offenses non-waivable, even when an individual could prove inability to pay. Read More.



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 December 2016, the ACLU of Nebraska released Unequal Justice: Bail and Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons in Nebraska. This report details the findings of an almost year-long investigation into the ways Nebraska’s criminal justice system handles fines and fees imposed on low-income Nebraskans. Read More.

10.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 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.

12.South Carolina

In the latest front in the nationwide fight against debtors' prisons, on June 1, 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a proposed class action lawsuit in federal court to challenge the illegal arrest and incarceration of poor people in Lexington County, South Carolina, without a hearing or representation by counsel. Victims can avoid jail only if they pay the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front and in full. Indigent people who are unable to pay are incarcerated for weeks to months without ever seeing a judge, having a court hearing, or receiving help from a lawyer.


Though poverty has increased in Lexington County since 2012—with poverty rates for Black and Latino residents at more than double the rate for white residents–the County continues to rely on revenue from fines and fees in magistrate court cases. The system now issues more than a thousand warrants each year to order the arrest and immediate incarceration of people who owe court fines and fees unless they pay the full amount of their debts before being booked in jail. The result is one of the most draconian debtors’ prisons uncovered by the ACLU since 2010. Read More.


In 2017, the ACLU of Tennessee challenged debtors’ prisons by taking on a Tennessee law that requires a person who has been charged with a crime or who has served prison time to pay off all court fees and fines within one year — or else have their driver’s license revoked. This law, which applies even to those who are found not guilty of a crime but still must pay court fees and fines, unfairly targets poor people who are unable to pay expensive legal fees, resulting in tens of thousands of Tennesseans losing their means of getting and keeping a job, supporting their families and successfully re-entering society. Through the Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice, the ACLU of Tennessee supported the passage of SB 802/HB 1173, which would amend the law to offer courts alternatives to revoking peoples’ licenses, including allowing a person to file an indigence affidavit and have all their fees and fines waived, giving courts the ability to permit restricted licenses to allow people to drive to work, school, recovery programs and other necessities, and setting up a payment plan to pay the fees over time. Read More.


In 2016, the ACLU of Texas sued the City of Sante Fe for unconstitutionally jailing people for low-level offenses simply because they are poor. On the same day that it filed the lawsuit, the ACLU of Texas released a report, “No Exit, Texas: Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons and the Poverty Trap,” which details the results of a six-month-long investigation into the enforcement of Class C Misdemeanor fines and fees in Texas’s Municipal and Justice of the Peace Courts. The report documents local courts that have a pattern of criminalizing poverty and perpetuating racial injustice through the unconstitutional enforcement of low-level offenses. 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.

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