Forgotten but not gone: A multi-state analysis of modern-day debt imprisonment
PLOS One, 2023.
Replication materials: https://policylab.stanford.edu/debtors-prisons.
In almost every state, courts can jail those who fail to pay fines, fees, and other court debts—even those resulting from traffic or other non-criminal violations. While debtors’ prisons for private debts have been widely illegal in the United States for more than 150 years, the effect of courts aggressively pursuing unpaid fines and fees is that many Americans are nevertheless jailed for unpaid debts. However, heterogeneous, incomplete, and siloed records have made it difficult to understand the scope of debt imprisonment practices. We culled data from millions of records collected through hundreds of public records requests to county jails to produce a first-of-its-kind dataset documenting imprisonment for court debts in three U.S. states. Using these data, we present novel order-of-magnitude estimates of the prevalence of debt imprisonment, finding that between 2005 and 2018, around 38,000 residents of Texas and around 8,000 residents of Wisconsin were jailed each year for failure to pay (FTP), with the median individual spending one day in jail in both Texas and Wisconsin. Drawing on additional data on FTP warrants from Oklahoma, we also find that unpaid fines and fees leading to debt imprisonment most commonly come from traffic offenses, for which a typical Oklahoma court debtor owes around $250, or $500 if a warrant was issued for their arrest.