Addressing modern debtors’ prisons with graduated economic sanctions that depend on ability to pay

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The use of monetary sanctions to punish crimes ranging from minor traffic or public order offenses to the most serious felonies is ubiquitous in the United States. Nationally, millions of people hold billions of dollars of criminal debt from past monetary sanctions, much of which is regarded as uncollectible because of the limited financial resources of the debtors. In addition to the costs these unmanageable economic sanctions place on the debtors, their families and communities also suffer significant negative consequences as a result of this regressive system.


Drawing on evidence from day-fines pilot projects, this paper offers proposals for taking more account of a person’s ability to pay when determining sanctions. Colgan recommends the implementation of one of the following three mechanisms: (1) a flat reduction in penalties, (2) a sliding scale approach, or (3) a day-fines model. In support of the core proposals, the author also describes related best practices that would maximize the proposals’ potential benefits.