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Milking the Poor for Fees and Fines Destroys Lives - and Cities

14 October 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

This blog post was written by Delaney Woodfield, Fall 2015 Intern

That is, citations for municipal infractions such as parking at an expired meter, driving without a license, and even housing code violations. And, of course, arrest warrants for non-payment of those citations.

In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death in 2014, DOJ released a report on Ferguson’s municipal court system that highlighted the shocking truth of what happens when local governments rely on the endless harassment and ticketing of poor people as a funding source.

In 2013, Ferguson generated $2.6 million dollars in court fines and fees, making it the city’s second-largest source of income. Ferguson has a population of only 21,000 people – yet the city issued 33,000 arrest warrants due to unpaid tickets in a single year.

This year, a group of civil rights attorneys in Ferguson filed a lawsuit against the city, asserts that jailing indigent citizens for their inability to pay off debt is unconstitutional. The ACLU agrees.

According to a recent report from the ACLU, indigent people are being jailed at “increasingly alarming rates for failing to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford.”  The report highlights how states are aggressively targeting poor people that have already served their criminal sentences, but who still owe fees and fines. In some extreme cases, people are forced to choose between paying rent or making payments on their court fees.

Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, jailing indigents for the inability to pay their debts is considered a civil rights violation. The practice of tossing people in “debtor’s prison” for unpaid financial dues to other people or to the government was common in the 19th century, but has been outlawed in the United States, officially, since before the Civil War.

In current times, advocates have re-coined the term “debtor’s prison” to describe how our current criminal justice system conduct a near identical practices by jailing the indigent for unpaid misdemeanor or traffic fees.

Missouri is not the only state that is full of cities profiting from modern-day debtor’s prisons. Every state in the U.S. – including Utah - has a long list of court fees and fines that fund their criminal justice machinery. If an individual is convicted of even a minor offense – such as shoplifting or failure to provide proof of insurance – the subsequent fines can be crushing, and even lead to jail time for non-payment.  

“Caging people when they’re too poor to afford to pay court debt…is ubiquitous, it’s happening in all 50 states,” according to Alec Karakatsanis, co-founder of Equal Justice Under the Law.

Local courts have increasingly tried to boost their revenue by piling fees on the convicted, making the promise of equal protection a fading light in the distance. A $1,000 fine for driving while intoxicated is less devastating for a chemical engineer than it is for a Walmart clerk: same behavior, vastly different impact, based purely on the wealth of the respective individuals.  

For those who do not have any room in their budget for a parking ticket or code violation, such a small infraction can actually become a lifelong sentence. "Legal financial obligations" (LFOs) - specific fees that include interest on outstanding fines, the cost of public defender services, court administration and jail overhead and probation supervision – are a bottomless pit for people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck. When they fall behind on their payments, they can be jailed while awaiting a hearing. In the meantime, jobs are lost and families are put under tremendous stress.  IDP YesOn6 teaser

On October 26, the state of Utah will release a formal report from the Sixth Amendment Center, detailing the many problems with Utah’s system of providing public defense. We expect, based on our own research and civil liberties complaints, that the report will include plenty of damning information about municipal “justice” courts, Utah’s own gateway to debtor’s prison.  

In justice courts, many people don’t receive any legal counsel, despite the eventual threat of jail time for non-payment of fines. The abuse of people without money through Justice Courts needs to end – but we need your help to end it.

You can share your own story of justice court injustice with the ACLU of Utah as part of our YES ON SIX Campaign by emailing Anna Brower, Strategic Communications Manager, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..