Debtors prisons in America: Increasing number of people going to jail for not paying fines


Oklahoma – When Linda Bearden did not pay $451 of court costs stemming from a 2011 guilty plea, a Tulsa County judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

Months later, on Oct. 15, a sheriff’s deputy noticed a blue Mitsubishi with a cracked windshield driving on 36th Street North near the Gilcrease Expressway. The deputy stopped the car and found Bearden driving under a suspended license with an outstanding warrant for failure to pay court costs, so he arrested her.   

After a few days, a judge ordered her released from Tulsa Jail after working out a payment agreement for both cases. But she remained in the jail for nearly two weeks, sitting on a hold for Creek County, where she owes more than $1,200 in traffic tickets. She was transferred to Creek County’s jail on Monday, where she will likely remain in custody until a Nov. 4 court hearing.

“I’m not a bad person,” Bearden said during an interview at the Tulsa Jail. “I just have no money.”

One woman explained she had to choose between having her electricity cut off and paying her court costs.


The court has remedies, much like the electric company, Miller explained. If you don’t pay, the court’s version of cutting off power is sending people to jail.

The percent of Tulsa Jail bookings involving warrants issued for inmates’ failures to pay court fines and fees has more than tripled during the past decade, a Tulsa World analysis shows.

The World examined jail booking data from the month of July for 2004 through 2013. The analysis excluded arrests on felony charges or for federal authorities.

Of the roughly 1,700 inmate bookings during July 2004, 8 percent were solely or in part the result of warrants for failure to pay costs. During July 2013, the portion of bookings involving failure to pay increased to 29 percent of the roughly 1,200 times inmates were taken into custody.

The most recent percentage is the highest since July 2008, when 26 percent of the around 1,300 jail bookings involved failure to pay warrants.

The problem of overcrowding at the Tulsa Jail has grown worse in recent years, Tulsa County Undersheriff Tim Albin said. He points to the volume of inmates booked on outstanding warrants, such as those issued for failure to pay fines and fees, as one of several factors driving the increased inmate populations.

Appeals court ruled a woman can be jailed overnight over a $15, non-jailable parking offense:

Georgia – Amanda Cruz was adjusting her seatbelt at a traffic light in Hall County, Georgia on the evening of June 19, 2010. Little did she know that for doing so, she would have to spend the rest of the night behind bars. The Eleventh Circuit US Court of Appeals on Thursday ruled that her jailing was entirely appropriate.

Georgia State Trooper Andy Page had been behind Cruz at a traffic light at around 7:45pm. When she failed to pull the belt back across her chest before driving into the intersection, he pounced, ready to issue a $15 citation. During the stop, he asked for license and registration. During the routine records check, he saw that “Amanda Cruz” had an outstanding arrest warrant. The Cruz wanted for questioning was a 30-year-old red head with tattoos on her arms and legs. The Cruz at the stop light showed Trooper Page that her arms and legs were tattoo free. She was a full five inches shorter than the wanted woman, with dark brown hair and her license showed she was 32 years old.

Cruz protested that she was innocent, but Trooper Page decided to take her into custody anyway. At the Hall County Jail, Joshua Davidson booked Cruz in, then put her in a holding cell for an hour. Cruz was then brought back before Davidson and five other jail staff for questioning. They looked at the picture of the wanted woman, and the staff concluded Cruz was not the woman listed in the warrant. Cruz was held for the rest of the night until her mother arrived with a $120 bond so that she could be released over the $15 seatbelt charge, which carries no jail time in Georgia.

A state court eventually dismissed the seatbelt ticket, but Cruz was so infuriated at her treatment that she filed a lawsuit against Davidson for keeping her in jail without probable cause after it was clear she was not the woman listed in the warrant. The appellate court rejected her lawsuit, arguing there was no constitutional problem with detaining her over a parking ticket.

“Cruz notes that she was held overnight for a crime that carried no jail time and a maximum of a $15.00 fine,” the Eleventh Circuit wrote in a per curiam decision. “The Supreme Court in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista held, however, that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he effectuated a custodial arrest for a seatbelt violation that carried no jail time and a maximum $50.00 fine.”

The three-judge panel found that the high court precedent was sufficient to throw out the lawsuit, citing Davidson’s qualified immunity from prosecution.

“To the extent Cruz argues that her detention cannot be justified objectively because it was a minor offense or because her detention was not authorized under Georgia law, her argument fails,” the court concluded. “There was probable cause to believe that Cruz committed a crime, namely a violation of the seatbelt law, and that alone is sufficient to justify her detention for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment.”

Amanda Cruz v.  Joshua Davidson ruling:

The rise of America’s new debtors’ prisons:


2 thoughts on “Debtors prisons in America: Increasing number of people going to jail for not paying fines

  1. Hey, I got arrested for driving my dog to the dog park and for not letting the officer (who literally followed me and pulled me over for no reason whatsoever) search my car for absolutely no reason after asserting my 4th Article right, only to have him turn around and charge me with “interfering with a public servant” and making me pay over $2000 in extortion money to get it off my record when it was HE who was interfering with ME and he wouldn’t let it go until he proved that he was the big man (or pig) in charge. Thank you officer COX! The name says it all.

    Mind you, one person in jail with me that night got arrested for not paying a fine and another for just having his license plate hanging the wrong way, while another was a young kid who said he couldn’t make it into court the one day because he didn’t have a ride and even called the county clerk who said, “Ok, we’ll call you and see what we can do”. The next thing he knows, the police pick him up at work and arrest rather than simply talking to the kid and making future arrangements.

    We are all such REALLY VIOLENT criminals, as you can see. What did we do that was so inhumane? Did we even physically hurt anyone? Absolutely not! It’s all about the money for them. Extortion racket. Plain and simple.

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