Sentencing Reform

New Mississippi Law Will Stop Courts from Jailing People Who Can't Pay Fines

Scaling back debtor's prisons in a state with one of the country's highest incarceration rates


Judge with money
Andrey Popov /

Indigent Mississippi citizens will no longer get tossed into jail because they're unable to pay off fines or court costs, thanks to a bipartisan bill signed this week by Republican Gov. Phil Bryant.

The bill, H.B. 387, will instead call on the courts to use federal poverty guidelines to determine whether a person can actually pay. People will be considered indigent if their income is 125 percent of the federal guidelines or less. For a single adult with no children, that calculates to an annual income of about $15,000. For a family of four, it's about $30,000.

If a person is indigent, or if the courts determine that a person is genuinely unable (as opposed to unwilling) to pay, the court will have several options, including community service, allowing more time to make payments, and even revoking a fine entirely. If the courts rule that the refusal to pay a fine or restitution is willful, they can't imprison the offender for longer than the maximum term for the offense.

Mississippi courts were already not supposed to imprison people for failing to pay fines that they're financially unable to cover. But the old law didn't really give any guidance on how to make that determination. By fleshing out the guidelines, HB 387 will hopefully make it less likely that people will end up in jail for being too poor to pay a fee.

Mississippi has a high rate of imprisonment, even by the standards of a country that leads the world in incarceration. Its rate ranks fifth in the nation, according to the Sentencing Project.

The new law will also allow parole for many people convicted of nonviolent crimes after serving 25 percent of their sentences (as long as they are not habitual offenders), and it establishes a committee to look for disparities in criminal sentencing with an eye toward crafting future reforms.

The focus on fines is part of a larger push, both in the legislatures and the courts, to try to stop such "debtor's prisons" effects. Lawsuits in Arkansas, Missouri, Texas, and elsewhere aim to stop municipalities and counties from using fines and citations to keep tossing poor people in jail and wringing more money out of them.

The Mississippi bill passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.

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15 responses to “New Mississippi Law Will Stop Courts from Jailing People Who Can't Pay Fines

  1. and even revoking a fine entirely

    Any chance the state decides a fine that can revoked is a fine that’s unnecessary to begin with?

    1. Dream on Dreamy Dreamerson. Next you’ll want the government to just lower taxes instead of handing out targeted tax breaks.

      1. I want the government to lower taxes, spend lavishly on unnecessary military build-up and extravagant social programs, and to bail-out failing institutions rather than let creative destruction rue the day.

        It is far batter to burden the unborn generations down the road with our profligacy so we can guy shit from China.

        1. If China will sell you a phone with a better keyboard, however, you should probably take them up on it.

          1. I thought it was un-American for consumers to get to choose the best deal for themselves.

          2. How do you know he’s not a collector of Chinese male shit? You assume a lot.

    1. Hey, good to see you. I feel like I haven’t seen you post for awhile.

        1. Just busy, or is the site so awful you left?

  2. “New Mississippi Law Will Stop Courts from Jailing People Who Can’t Pay Fines” – Scott Shackford

    “Here, hold my beer, watch this.” – Mississippi Courts

    “Good intentions are no guarantee of good results. In fact, just the opposite.” – Every libertarian ever

    1. it establishes a committee to look for disparities in criminal sentencing with an eye toward crafting future reforms.

      “We’ve decided to just sentence everyone to twenty years.”

    2. But if they actually crunched the numbers and realized that not only could they not get blood from these turnips but incarcerating the turnips was causing the system to lose blood… The only one to lose with this law if applied as advertised would be the ghouls in the prison industrial complex.

  3. You know, being put in jail because I couldn’t afford to pay a speeding ticket in college was actually the moment I started to see the problem with government and it was one of my first steps toward a more libertarian outlook. Go figure, I guess.

  4. How about States that do things like take away driver’s licenses and contractor licenses from parents who can’t (or won’t) pay their child support, thus ensuring they absolutely can’t pay them.

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