Debtor Prisons Alive and Well Today

by Mandy Hrach, Taylor Means and Anthony Copeland


Amy Murk of Memphis, Tennessee, was running late to a job interview one morning when she was pulled over for going nine miles per hour over the speed limit.  She was issued a traffic ticket for $47.75, but was unable to pay her fee because she was recently laid off from her job.

Because she failed to pay her court costs, a judge sentenced her to two days in jail. Additionally, multiple fines were tacked on to her sentence, making it almost impossible for her to catch up with her payments.

“I used to think the debtors’ prison was a thing of the past,” Murk, 49, said. “But because of my financial circumstances, I was made (to feel) like I was a criminal even though I previously had a clean record.”

Murk, a single mother of three, disputed the criminal penalty sentenced against her but received little mercy from the court system.

“They took me away from my kids, and I had to tell them I was going to jail for a few days,” she said. “That is not something anyone wants to have to tell their children. I never would have imagined I would actually be arrested for my inability to pay a parking ticket.”

The Larger Picture

Though debtors’ prisons were abolished two centuries ago, Murk is just one of many people across the country who has served jail time for being unable to pay a fine. A recent study done by the Population Reference Bureau reports thousands of Americans are given jail time each year because they cannot afford to pay for traffic tickets, court fees and medical bills.

The issue was also raised by a federal government investigation into the shooting and riots that broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, in the fall of 2014. On March 4, 2015, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report about the city and its use of court fines to finance city government at the expense of residents, especially the African-American community.

“I don’t think we treat poor (people or minorities) any better in Memphis than they do in Ferguson, just in this instance we’re not doing it as brazenly. We have found other ways to subject them to this system,” said Josh Spickler, of the public defender’s office in Shelby County.

Nationwide, according to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “many states utilize  “poverty penalties”—piling on additional late fees, payment plan fees, and interest when individuals are unable to pay all their debts at once, often enriching private debt collectors in the process.”  Other fees can be added to an offender’s court cost, sometimes tripling the original amount.

Memphis’ Dollars

In Shelby County, one must pay a $25 start-up fee to be placed on a payment plan, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

“In no way do I think tacking on fees is fair,” Spickler said. “Pretty quickly you begin to punish poverty.”

Spickler said not all criminal court fees are a set amount, and the clerk of the court is able to set the fee in these occasions.

“You can imagine how quickly that fee gets set to the maximum,” he said. “The clerk’s office gets a commission so the more they collect the more they get.”

In 2013, the Shelby County Criminal Court reported collecting $3.2 million in fees. April brought in the most revenue of any single month, with a collection of $339,000.

Revenue generated from collected fees is used to pay for anything from background checks to renovations of public buildings, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Leftover revenue is stored in a general fund account each year.

Shelby County's General Sessions Criminal Court collected more than $5 million in 2013. Source:
Shelby County’s General Sessions Criminal Court collected more than $5 million in 2013. Source:


Paying the Price

Murk said it is nearly impossible to make ends meet and pay off the remaining amount she owes on low-wage pay and having children to support.

“It’s like being punished for being poor,” she said. “I am not going to let my children suffer because I need to pay my fines; it’s not their fault. I need to take care of them, so any source of income goes towards supporting them.”

Jacob Sammons, an accounting major at the University of Memphis, was on the way home from a friend’s house when he noticed flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror of his Toyota Camry. When he pulled over, a patrolman issued him a ticket for $233 for driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit.

“I admit that I should not have been driving that fast, but that is a lot of money for a college student,” Sammons, 20, said.

Sammons took the case to court in hopes to remove the ticket from his record. In the end, his ticket was thrown out and he did not have to attend driving school, which was part of the original agreement.

Though Sammons thought he was in the clear, a week later he received a letter stating he owed $50 to a public defender along with a court cost of $90.

“I was so mad,” he said. “What kind of sense does it make to charge me for a public defender I did not use and court costs for a room I was in for a total of five minutes?”

A study conducted by the city court clerk’s office reported the city of Memphis charged offenders $20 million it didn’t receive in 2011. Some people are concerned that the uncollected dollars stem from citizens’ inability to pay.

In October of 2014, Memphian Christal Lyons found herself at the wrong place at the wrong time. She accompanied someone to a grocery store, but she was unaware her friend had an intention to steal while they were there. While walking out of the store, a loss-prevention officer pulled them both into an office and requested to search their bags. Though Lyons’ bag contained no stolen merchandise, she was given a citation that was equally as heavy as her friend’s: theft of property under $500.

“I owe $367 in court fees currently,” Lyons said.  “If I do not pay them off by the end of this month, it basically doubles.”

Lyons and her friend hired a lawyer, and along with a public defender’s help, a settlement was reached for the pair. Because her friend pleaded guilty and agreed to a year of probation, Lyons was not faced with any charges.

“I was incredibly thankful, until I saw the court fees,” she said. “I had just paid $300 for the lawyer, and now I have to pay another $367 to the courts.  It’s ridiculous.”

But if Lyons decided to not have the charges dropped, she would be paying $40 a month for the probation officer, additional court fees and a $450 expungement fee at the end of her probation.

“I am glad that I escaped further punishment, but at the same time, I am a full-time college student,” Lyons said.  “I pay for tuition out of pocket and only work 20 hours a week.  I already live at home to lessen expenses, so this is not an ideal situation for me to be in.”

Lyons said she does not know if she will be able to pay off her fees before the deadline, and is uneasy about her payment plan because it tacks on an additional cost to her already high court fees.

But high court fees are not the only problem one has to worry about in the city of Memphis. If traffic and court fees are not paid, defendants can have their license suspended.

“A license suspension for not paying a court fee when the offense had nothing to do with driving is like punishing the poor,” Spickler said. “Especially in a city like Memphis where you need transportation to get to work or anywhere else.”

It is not just in Shelby County where the court fees are putting a burden on people. Even smaller counties, such as neighboring Tipton County, in western Tennessee, have the same issues.

“It’s hard to argue court fees aren’t high,” admits Connie Faye, Chief Deputy Clerk of Tipton County. “I’ve worked here 30 years and they have nearly tripled since I started. But what a lot of people don’t know is that the court works with you. If someone asks for additional time, they will get it.”

Faye said if a defendant asks for additional time in Tipton or Shelby County, he or she can have up to 90 days to pay off a traffic ticket and up to one year to pay off any court costs.

“If someone brings in a few dollars each week, eventually they will get it paid off,” she said. “It’s when they ignore their fees all together when there becomes a problem.”

Travis Malone, a 19 year-old Pizza Hut employee from Southaven, Mississippi, found himself shelling out thousands of dollars to hire a defense attorney after he was busted for having a quarter of an ounce of marijuana in his vehicle.

Along with his attorney, Malone decided to fight his charges, which only led to increased fees and a suspension of his license.

“It all happened so fast and I fell into a hole quick,” he said.

Malone now faces over $5,000 in court costs, though the maximum sentence for misdemeanor possession of marijuana is only $1,000 and one year in jail for first-time offenders.

Fighting Back

Advocacy groups around the country, including the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, are working to halt the increase of court fees and fines .

“Local jurisdictions are beginning to recognize the challenges that fees place on individuals who are unable to pay,” said Jessica Eaglin, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice. “This is due to strategic advocacy by different organizations. Some lawmakers are taking steps to address this issue in response, but few studies have been conducted that are as thorough as the one done by the Department of Justice on Ferguson.”

As for Murk, who is still paying off what she owes to the court two years later, she said she doesn’t expect new debtors’ prisons to disappear anytime soon.

“Patrolmen and other officials are relying on lower income citizens to fund their cities,” she said. “I’m glad to see people are starting to realize this is an issue, but nothing is going to get better until the system changes.”


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