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Can I Be Jailed for Failure to Pay Criminal Fines?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

It's a bitter irony but you can be made to pay prosecution costs and the costs for your jail stay in many states. In other words, you fund your conviction and punishment, and that's not necessarily all.

The practice of demanding payment from defendants is increasingly popular as state budgets shrink and courts look for ways to pay for the criminal justice system. It's been fought by some civil rights groups, who have argued in courts and by the press that constitutional protections for the poor have eroded.

The Various Payments

People end up in jail for failure to pay fines associated with a criminal case in a number of ways and there are various costs to cover. A person convicted of a crime can be charged for all kinds of things, including representation by a public defender and court fees, restitution to a victim, and fines as punishment associated with the particular crime.

Technically, a person can't be made to go to jail for failure to pay fees or fines if they are unable to do so. Per the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, fines also must not be excessive.

But actually there are ways that failure to pay can land you in jail. For example, if you are sentenced to probation and payment of court fees, prosecution costs, and restitution are made a condition of successful completion, you can be charged with a violation of probation for failure to pay.

Proving Willlful Failure

Probation violations must be proven and technically the prosecution must show a willful failure to pay -- not inability -- yet the required process is not always strictly adhered to. In fact, last year an Alabama judge got in trouble when the Southern Poverty Law Center exposed the Shakespearean bargain he offered defendants -- they could give blood in lieu of fee payment or go to jail.

In some states warrants may be issued for a defendant who has not paid fees or fines. Problems often get compounded for defendants who don't pay because when they're picked up and go to jail again, there are more fees. It's a vicious cycle that is a concern to many.

It is important to remember, however, that there are rules of criminal procedure and that the law attempts to safeguard against such situations. That's why it can help to have great representation. A criminal defense lawyer, whether public or private, who fights the state and makes them show a willful failure to pay while providing evidence of your actual inability, is invaluable.

Consult With Counsel

If you or someone you know is in trouble for failure to pay fines or charged with a crime now, don't delay. Talk to a lawyer. Many criminal defense attorneys consult for free or a minimal fee and will be happy to assess your case.

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