In For a Penny: The Rise of America's New Debtors' Prisons

Document Date: October 4, 2010

This ACLU report presents the results of a yearlong investigation into modern-day “debtors’ prisons,” and shows that poor defendants are being jailed at increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford. The report details how across the country, in the face of mounting budget deficits, states are more aggressively going after poor people who have already served their criminal sentences. 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.

Incarcerating people simply because they cannot afford to pay their legal debts not only is unconstitutional but it has a devastating impact upon men and women, whose only crime is that they are poor. The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts. This report seeks to document the realities of today’s debtors’ prisons and to provide state and local governments and courts with a more sensible path – one where they no longer will be compelled to fund their criminal justice systems on the backs of the poor, and one where the promise of equal protection under the law for the poor and affluent alike will finally be realized.

Table of Contents


Key Findings5




I. LFOs in New Orleans17

II. Special Focus: New Orleans’ Broken Funding Scheme for Its Criminal Justice System25

III. Recommendations28


I. LFOs in Michigan29

II. Special Focus: Michigan’s Recent Shift Toward Aggressive Collections38

III. Recommendations41


I. LFOs in Ohio43

II. Special Focus: Ohio’s Municipal & Mayor’s Courts and “Pay-to-Stay” Programs52

III. Recommendations54


I. LFOs in Georgia55

II. Special Focus: Georgia’s For-Profit Probation Companies59

III. Recommendations64


I. LFOs in Washington State65

II. Special Focus: Four Case Studies of Men and Women and Their Lifetime Struggle to Manage Their Legal Debts69

III. Recommendations79


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