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Can a criminal court order lead to debtors' prison

Everyone who has been issued a citation or has been ordered to pay court costs (and fines) has been there. When you have to make a choice between paying rent or buying diapers for a child and paying court imposed fees, what do you choose? More likely than not, the choice is made to maintain the necessities in life (i.e. shelter, buying food, paying utilities). When this occurs, people in arrears run the risk of having warrants issued for their arrest.

But this may run contrary to the notion that America has no debtors’ prisons. Essentially, a person cannot be jailed for not being able to pay contractual debts. Secured creditors can take back the property that is not being paid for, and unsecured creditors can bring a lawsuit and obtain a judgment to collect payment. 

But what happens when someone is too poor to pay a particular judgment, and the creditor is the state? Unfortunately, the debtor may end up spending some time behind bars. The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) is waging a campaign to make sure that indigent defendants are not jailed due to their inability to pay court costs and other fines. In a 2013 article, the ACLU highlighted a couple who, at numerous times, had to serve jail time due to unpaid debts stemming from criminal matters.

While the story is an unfortunate tale of poverty and injustice, it underscores the need to have an attorney in criminal cases. If you have questions about making arrangements to pay criminal related court costs and fees, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help.

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