Can You Go To Jail For Debt?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Nothing in life is free. For some, the costs of court fines and fees hurt more because they're poor.

When Conner Comeau was convicted for graffiti, he was sentenced to two days in jail and a fine of $1,300 for restitution. Four years later, he was sentenced to 100 days in jail. His new crime? Not being able to pay his restitution debt.

Is debtor's prison back?

Court Fines and Fees

Getting convicted doesn't just mean getting sentenced to jail. You can be fined to pay restitution to the victim. Or, you may be assessed fees to cover court costs. Even if you only get sentenced to community service, you may have to pay for the privilege to do community service too.

These fines and fees aren't a problem if you're rich and can afford to pay. If you can't, you may find yourself sitting in jail to pay off your debt.

Maine's Law

Many states have laws that allow judges to jail people for not paying fines.

In 12 of Maine's 15 jails, from August 2013 to August 2014, 3,135 inmates were booked for failing to pay fines.

Currently, Maine's law allows judges to jail convicts for contempt of court if they do not pay court ordered fines. If the convicts owe criminal fines, they get a credit of $25 to $100 for each day in jail. If they owe restitution, however, the convicts only get $5 credits per day. Ironically, jailing convicts for not paying fines is costing Maine's taxpayers over $100 per day per convict.

Bearden v. Georgia

For some people unable to pay these fines, jailing them may be unconstitutional.

In the case of Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that a State cannot imprison a person solely because the person was too poor to pay the fines ordered. A person should only be jailed if he has the resources necessary but willfully refuses to pay.

However, the Court did not clearly define the standards for determining if a person is too poor to pay or willfully refuses to pay. After its investigation into the topic, NPR reports that judges' determinations of who is too poor to pay can vary wildly between judges.

Opponents of the practice argue that while it may be necessary to punish people with fines, it is unfair to jail people who cannot afford to pay. Proponents argue that fines and jail time for failure to pay are necessary to hold people accountable for breaking laws.

What do you think?

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