Debtors prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago, but every day, people go to jail because they failed to pay their court debts, NPR reports. More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear: Judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines. The Supreme Court didn’t tell courts how to determine what it means to “willfully” not pay. So it’s left to judges to make the sometimes difficult calculations.
In Benton County, Wa., jail records sampled over a four-month period in 2013 show that on a typical day, a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees. Judges say it’s difficult to determine who can and cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. Often a probation officer or a court official will make a recommendation based on an interview with the defendant or based on a questionnaire.