What Happens When You Can't Pay Your Fines

Committing a crime is a costly thing: you can pay with your time, your freedom, your future, and of course, with your wallet. The consequences for a small crime can become much larger as a result of an individual's inability to pay costly fines. In fact, in some cases, citizens who have committed minor crimes have been sentenced to jail entirely because they didn't have enough cash. With fines and fees being an element to most offenses, there is a need to address each person's ability to pay.

Luckily this isn't happening in Illinois, but in January of last year, a homeless man named Clifford Hayes was put in jail after he was unable to pay his probationary debts from several driving-related misdemeanors that had occurred over seven years earlier. In another instance, Timothy and Kristy Fugatt each received separate, small traffic citations; and even though they were found not guilty in court, they still owed about $500 in court fees. Due to hardships they were facing in handling the severe medical condition of their child, they simply did not have that money, and they were imprisoned as a result.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that that the Constitution prohibits imposing "a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full." What's worse, cities in at least 12 states are hiring private for-profit companies to oversee probation requirements, including fine collection. These companies tack on monthly fees on top of initial court costs and charge the offender rather than the state; so ultimately, citizens must continue to pay in exchange for ensuring that they will be kept out of jail. The Fugatts, who have paid at least $1,300 to the court (again, they initially owed $500) by way of one of the largest of these companies—Judicial Correction Services—are now part of lawsuit against the company.

While a person convicted of a crime is responsible for making a good faith effort to repay his debts, does he deserve jail time if truly unable to pay? Should the court have an obligation to assess an individual's ability to pay. If he is experiencing financial hardship and is unable to come up with the money, should alternative arrangements (i.e. community service) be made to allow the individual to pay off their debt to society in another way? We believe a strict debtors' jail, without more, is a matter of history and it needs to remain that way.

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