Can You go to Prison For Debt?

By Prison Insight Staff

Updated: August 20, 2019

Debtors’ prisons don’t exist anymore, right? Congress passed a law against them nearly two centuries ago, and the Supreme Court has ruled multiple times that incarcerating people who are too poor to pay their debt was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

Technically, debtors’ prisons are against the law. But, in the past thirty years or so there has been a rise in the number of people who are sitting in jail because they can’t pay a bill. So, what happened?

According to experts, this trend has coincided with the “mass incarceration” we have seen in this country since the beginning of the drug war in the 1970s. Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney who has successfully challenged a court system for jailing indigent debtors, says that we first had to normalize incarceration.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, we started to imprison more people for lesser crimes. In the process, we were lowering our standards for what constituted an offense deserving of imprisonment, and more broadly, we were losing our sense of how serious, how truly serious, it is to incarcerate. If we can imprison for possession of marijuana, why can’t we imprison for not paying back a loan?” says Karakatsanis.

Because we started to rely more on incarceration, more and more states started listing a prison term as a possible sentence for failure to pay criminal justice debt. But, what about other bills that you owe? Can you go to prison for debt?

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Court costs, the Victim’s Compensation Fund, and intervention fees
  • Going to prison for unpaid child support
  • Going to prison for tax evasion
  • Getting stuck in jail because you can’t make bail

Court costs, the Victim’s Compensation fund, and Intervention fees

You will be happy to know that the law does not allow prison as punishment for civil debt like credit cards, car loans, and mortgages. If your bills become too much for you to handle, we have bankruptcy laws in place to help you get your finances in order, so incarceration for unpaid civil debt is not allowed.

There are also federal and state consumer collection laws, like the Fair Debt Collection Practice Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from threatening you with criminal prosecution for failing to pay a debt.

However, you should know that in states like Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and more, there are creditors who win judgments, and then use the court system to put debtors in jail if they don’t pay.

So, how does this happen? In some states, when you fail to follow a court’s order to appear for a hearing or make a payment, then you may be held in civil contempt of court. If you are in contempt because you failed to follow an order, the court can issue a warrant for your arrest.

When you are arrested, you go to jail and stay there until you post a bond. Of course, the bond is set in an amount that just so happens to equal the amount of the judgment that the creditor took against you.

While this technically may not count as a debtors’ prison since you are going to jail for failing to follow a court order instead an unpaid debt, the end result is the same. The moral of the story is, if you get a notice to appear in court because of unpaid debt, then GO TO COURT even if you can’t pay.

If you are a defendant and/or felon it gets worse.  If you don’t pay your court costs, victim’s compensation fund fees, restitution, or intervention fees, you could find yourself back in prison. Paying your court costs and fees associated with your case is usually part of your parole or probation, and if you don’t pay them, your parole officer could violate you and send you back to prison. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed the use of prison to punish indigent criminal defendants who fail to pay for court costs and fines as part of their sentence. But again, many state and local courts get around this by assessing fees, fines, and costs as part of a civil fine or, “criminal justice debt.” So, if you don’t pay these fines, you could end up in jail or back in prison.

Going to prison for unpaid child support

Another debt that could put you in jail or prison is unpaid child support. When a court orders you to pay child support, and you fail to follow the order, the person who is receiving the support can request a hearing because of your non-payment.

If a judge finds that you had the means to pay your court-ordered child support, but you didn’t do it, then you could be sent to jail.

Contempt of court related to unpaid child support is serious. And, it could get even worse, depending on the complexities of the case. They could charge you with other things like desertion or child abandonment — all for not paying child support.

Going to prison for tax evasion 

Then there is the subject of unpaid taxes. If you don’t pay your income taxes it could get you in a lot of trouble, just ask Wesley Snipes. There is also tax fraud, which can include not reporting income or claiming bogus work expenses.

In 2016, the IRS launched nearly 3,400 investigations related to tax fraud, and 2,672 of those cases resulted in convictions with an average of 41 months behind bars. Moral of this story: pay your taxes, no matter how much you might hate big government.

Getting stuck in jail because you can’t make bail

Another huge problem in the United States is imprisoning people who have been arrested but can’t pay their bail. These are people who haven’t been convicted of a crime, but because the court has imposed a ridiculous bail amount, they can’t afford to bail themselves out.

Approximately 400,000 people are sitting in jail RIGHT NOW because they can’t afford their bail. That’s nearly one-quarter of the incarcerated population in the United States. Not only does this ruin the life of the person behind bars, but it also costs America $15 billion a year.

It costs on average about $77.67 a day to jail someone, which is about $28,000 per year per person. On top of that, the economy loses out because those people can’t work. Add all of this together, and you will see that keeping people in jail when they can’t pay their bail is absolute insanity.

Do you think people who haven’t been convicted of a crime, but can’t afford bail, should sit in jail? Let us know in the comments below.


Debtors’ Prisons Then and Now: FAQ

The New Bill Collector Tactic: Jail Time

Current Fiscal Year Stats

Report: Imprisoning People Who Can't Pay Bail Costs America $15 Billion a Year
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