Debtors’ Prison Project

As local governments shift the costs of the criminal justice system onto those who pass through their courts and outsource the collection of court debt to for-profit corporations, people are being arrested and jailed simply because they are too poor to pay criminal justice debt. According to a recent bipartisan report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 47 states have increased criminal fees and fines since 2010, and many cities are using collection of court debt to generate municipal revenue at the expense of their own residents, especially low-income people and people of color. Meanwhile, for-profit companies that contract with municipalities to collect court debt benefit from keeping the debtors in debt—and having them arrested and jailed when they’re unable to pay—in violation of due process and other constitutional protections to which the debtors are entitled.

Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project combats this criminalization of poverty through strategic class action litigation on behalf of criminal defendants whose constitutional and other legal rights have been violated. Our work aims to do away with the incentives municipal governments have to balance their budgets on the backs of indigent criminal defendants, and it aggressively targets corporate actors that profit by trapping these indigent defendants in a cycle of poverty. We believe that to deter unlawful conduct, we must use the courts to force companies and local governments to financially compensate those whose rights they have violated. We therefore focus not only enjoining unlawful practices, but also on winning damages for our clients. To ensure that our present and future clients recover to the fullest extent possible under the law, we are developing innovative legal theories, recruiting some of the nation’s top trial and class action lawyers to partner with us on large cases, and collaborating with other non-profit and public interest allies.


We have extensive experience handling and winning cutting-edge appeals in public interest cases. If you are currently litigating an appeal in a constitutional or consumer case involving the collection of government debt, jailing of debtors for inability to pay criminal or civil debts, immunity of government actors with respect to court debt, or related issues, and you might be interested in expanding your team, please email Leslie Bailey at lbailey@publicjustice.net.

Cases under development:

Public Justice is now developing or seeking to develop cases in the following areas:

  • Court-debt-related constitutional class actions against for-profit probation companies and other private debt collectors, and against municipalities and other government actors;
  • Consumer class actions against private collectors of court debt and other government debt;
  • Cases targeting private creditors/debt collectors and law enforcement partnering to arrest and jail people for failure to pay civil debts.

Special thanks to Arnold Ventures for their generous support of the Debtors’ Prison Project.