Debtors’ Prisons

Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors' prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.

The ACLU and ACLU affiliates across the country have been exposing and challenging modern-day debtors' prisons across the country.

The Problem

Every year, thousands of Pennsylvanians are jailed because they are too poor to pay the fines and costs arising out of criminal cases, including for minor summary offenses such as speeding or disorderly conduct. In some counties, the courts have become debt-collection agencies and the jails have been transformed into modern debtors’ prisons.

Under Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1970s, courts cannot jail defendants for failure to pay without first holding a hearing and determining that the defendant has the ability to pay but is willfully refusing to do so. At the time, these decisions were intended to put an end to the practice of jailing the indigent who—through no fault of their own—were too poor to pay their fines and costs.

But a lack of clear standards has given Pennsylvania judges discretion to determine exactly what constitutes ability to pay. Some judges thoroughly assess a person’s income and expenses when setting a payment plan, but others determine ability to pay based on arbitrary factors like whether the defendant has a cell phone, smokes, or has tattoos. As a result, some of the most vulnerable low-income individuals find themselves at the mercy of judges who threaten them with jail unless they can immediately borrow hundreds of dollars from friends or family.

Do you owe fines and costs?

If you owe fines, costs, or restitution to a magisterial district court or a court of common pleas and do not pay on time, you may be at risk of being arrested. If you cannot afford your payments, you can ask the court to lower them. And if you have missed your payments and are threatened with jail, you have the right to a free lawyer before the court can jail you. Look at the self-help resources listed below for more information.

If you have followed the guides below and still cannot afford your payments or have been threatened with jail, please file a complaint with our legal department.

Self-Help Guides for Unrepresented Defendants

Legal Guides for Lawyers, Defendants, and Judges

Procedures are a little different in Philadelphia. Visit Community Legal Services’ Self-Help Materials for help in Philadelphia.

Template Motions

Model Collections Resources for Courts and Court Staff

Based on forms from ACLU settlements in other states, such as Biloxi, Mississippi, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has created model documents grounded in Pennsylvania law for courts to use at hearings to determine why a defendant has failed to pay court fines, costs, or restitution. 

Proposed Reforms

Both the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s Criminal Procedural Rules Committee and the legislature are considering reforming the way that courts impose and collect court fines and costs. Visit our webpage here for more information.

ACLU of Pennsylvania Litigation

The ACLU has been litigating these unconstitutional practices to protect individuals’ rights and provide much-needed guidance to trial courts. Visit our webpage here for more information.

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