Police State

Yes, Lots of People Go to Jail Because They Can’t Pay a Fine

From 1990 to 2004, the rate of people on probation who were sent back to jail for non-compliance grew by 50 percent. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

One of the most chilling reasons for being sent back to prison is failure to pay a fine or court or supervision fees.

The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, climbing from 600,000 to over 2 million in just a few decades. We also have the highest percentage of our population behind bars of any country. The people most likely to languish behind bars are Black, Latino, Native American, and poor. It’s a legacy rooted in Jim Crow-era policies that continues in the thinly veiled racism of the war on drugs, as lawyer Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow.

But there’s another number that dwarfs the prison population: Nearly 5 million people are under some sort of parole or probation supervision in the United States. That’s a fourfold increase since 1980, according to a new report released this week by the Columbia University’s Justice Lab. During that time, the requirements for people under judicial supervision have become more stringent.

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