Debtors prisons were outlawed in the 1800s, and the U.S. Supreme Court, as recently as 1983, has said that a person cannot be imprisoned for not being able to pay their fine.
It goes without saying then, that you can't get sent to jail for not paying your court-ordered fine, right?
Don't count on it.
Bearden v. Georgia
In 1983's Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that a state who sentenced someone to pay a fine or restitution "may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it." However, the Court followed this with a rather broadly worded exception: "If the probationer has willfully refused to pay the fine or restitution when he has the resources to pay or has failed to make sufficient bona fide efforts to seek employment or borrow money to pay, the State is justified in using imprisonment as a sanction to enforce collection."
National Public Radio reports that 30 years after Bearden, courts are utilizing this willful refusal exception to the rule in Bearden to imprison an increasing number of individuals for failing to pay fines, child support, restitution and fees. In some states this can even include paying room and board for their own incarceration.
Return of the Debtor's PrisonAn NPR investigation found that the practice of jailing those who owed fines, fees, or restitution to the court is becoming widespread, as the number of services a defendant can be charged for -- including many that are constitutionally mandated -- grows as well.
According to NPR:
Combined with the original fines and restitution, these fees can add up. And when defendants are unable to pay them, it is at the court's discretion to suss out if it's because they can't, or they won't. If the court determines it's the latter, they are often jailed, and not just overnight. Defendants can spend weeks or months in jail for not paying fines.
While the constitutionality of this practice is questionable to some, for now the message is clear: Pay your fine any way that you can, or you might find yourself behind bars.
Editor's note, May 24, 2016: This post was first published in May, 2014. It has since been updated.