How common is debt imprisonment in U.S. today?

debt jail 2500

Over about four years, they collected and standardized the records of more than 4 million jail bookings and almost 3 million court cases. Stanford economics graduate student Sarah Vicol rounded out the team.

The data presented an order-of-magnitude estimate of the prevalence of debt imprisonment in specific states: Between 2005 and 2018, Texas courts jailed people for failure to pay around 38,000 times per year, and Wisconsin courts around 8,000 times per year, with the median time served being one day in jail in both states.

They also looked at court debt data in Oklahoma, finding that unpaid fines and fees leading to imprisonment came most commonly from traffic offenses, for which a typical Oklahoma court debtors owes around $250, or $500 if an arrest warrant is issued.

Their data-gathering included case studies of individuals. “Ms. Smith,” a Black woman from Austin, Texas, spent a night in jail in 2017 after several years of unpaid traffic citations and an arrest for failure to pay. Her jailing, the researchers wrote, represents an extreme example of what some researchers have termed “criminalization of poverty.” These are ways in which the American criminal justice system metes punishments through mechanisms that disproportionately affect poor people, such as cash bail, fines, and fees related to court appearances.

At the outset, the project felt unusual for academic research, even for Gaebler, who has worked on other projects that apply a statistical lens to issues of social justice and policy. “It didn’t involve fancy estimation or a clever scientific idea. It really was just, ‘Here’s a really important thing that, unfortunately, takes a huge amount of work to measure.’”

Imprisonment for debt “feels like something that shouldn’t happen anymore,” Gaebler said. Their analysis highlights that some states, like Colorado, have eliminated the practice of issuing failure-to-pay warrants — so change is possible.

The researchers hope their analysis sparks conversation and enables other researchers or policymakers to better understand debt imprisonment within individual communities. They’ve made their data publicly available.

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