Debtors' Prisons

Investigating incarceration for failing to pay fines and fees across America.

In almost every state, courts can jail those who fail to pay fines, fees, and other court debts—even those resulting from traffic violations or other non-criminal violations. While imprisoning someone for failing to pay a debt remains illegal on paper, these aggressive debt-enforcement tactics have led to the de facto reemergence of debtors’ prisons. Many believe that thousands of people across the country are jailed each year for unpaid fines and fees, but a dearth of data has made it difficult to rigorously assess and curb modern-day debt imprisonment practices.

To address this data gap, we’re compiling an extensive database documenting debt imprisonment. We have made hundreds of open records requests in counties all across the United States, gathering records of millions of jail bookings over the last decade. By extracting and cleaning the data in these records, we have identified over a hundred thousand instances of individuals being jailed for failing to pay court debts over the last decade in Texas and Wisconsin alone. Hundreds of thousands of warrants for failure to pay from Oklahoma and Delaware suggest that the practice is widespread.

We continue to gather data from other states that we believe may imprison substantial numbers of people for court debts. At the same time, we have done on-the-ground reporting in collaboration with Stanford’s Big Local News—talking with judges, lawmakers, police officers, and individuals imprisoned for debt—to bring attention to the issue of debt imprisonment through data-driven journalism. Ultimately, we will anonymize the extensive data we have gathered and publish them for researchers, civil rights advocates, law enforcement officers, and other criminal justice stakeholders.

Contributors

Leila Barghouty

Data Journalist

Johann Gaebler

Researcher

Sharad Goel

Faculty Director

Jane Lee

Intern

Cheryl Phillips

Data Journalist

Keniel Yao

Data Scientist