Debtors prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago. And 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.
However, 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.
An NPR news investigation has found there are wide discrepancies in how judges make those decisions. And every day, people go to jail because they failed to pay their court debts.