Imagine spending a week in jail for being unable to pay a bill. That’s what happened to Roxana Beck. After she pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of “frequenting a place where controlled substances were used, sold, or manufactured,” an Idaho court imposed a bill of $683.50 in fines and fees. Her lawyer—who had been appointed by the court because Beck couldn’t afford to hire one—asked that the costs be waived or reduced, given Beck’s tough financial circumstances. The judge refused. When Beck failed to make payments, the court issued a warrant for her arrest. She spent seven days in jail waiting to see the judge. Charged with a new crime of “contempt” for not paying, the judge sentenced Beck to time served in jail, again ordered her to pay costs, and reminded her that if she didn’t, she would continue to face new arrests, detentions, and contempt convictions.
We Have Criminalized Poverty
People all across the country are regularly incarcerated because they owe court debt stemming from a conviction, a traffic ticket, or some municipal infraction that they simply cannot afford to pay. In Hardin County, Kentucky, local news reports showed that in a single week in November 2022, six people were processed into the county jail for “non-payment of court costs, fees, or fines.” That’s equivalent to nearly one every day, which is particularly shocking considering this is a rural county of just over 100,000 people.
In Mississippi, courts sentence hundreds of people each year to what they euphemistically call “restitution centers.” In reality, these are modern-day debtors’ prisons. Those sentenced to these centers are kept behind razor-wire fences, subjected to strip searches, may only leave to go to work, and even then are transported by corrections officials. Stays in these facilities averaged nearly four months, but some people can be there for years. That’s not surprising when someone is working a minimum wage job to pay off thousands of dollars in court debt while the state’s Department of Corrections continues to add new fees to their bill, including a $10 daily room and board charge.
Beyond being an unfairly coercive and counterproductive response to the inability to pay, debt collection through incarceration often plays out with serious racial disparities. The U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Ferguson, Missouri, found the local court used arrest warrants almost exclusively “to compel payment through the threat of incarceration” and that 96 percent of those jailed on warrants were Black. A study in Nevada found that while Black people made up approximately 13 percent of the population of Las Vegas, nearly 45 percent of all arrest warrants issued for failure to pay a traffic ticket were issued against Black people.