02/23/2015 02:01 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2015

The Threat of Prison for Unpaid Fees Looms Large for Women

How do you celebrate four years sober from drugs and alcohol? For Ann Marie Jones, it is going to the courthouse to set up a payment plan for the thousands of dollars in court fees she owes after many years in and out of the criminal justice system. Ann Marie is a survivor of sex trafficking. After a tough childhood of sexual abuse, Ann Marie was given crack from a family member to cope with the pain and an addiction was born. Her addiction led her to a man who beat her, threatened her, and pimped her out for years. She was repeatedly picked up and booked for prostitution charges, each time accruing hundreds of dollars in court fines and fees.

Today, Ann Marie is doing everything she is supposed to and more. She works at Dawn's Place, a residential treatment program for sexually exploited women. She is also putting herself through school to get her GED. But, she lives paycheck to paycheck. Every last penny goes to essentials such as rent, food, and child support. The money she would have to pay each month for her court fines and fees is a significant hardship. But, it is worth paying up to stop the collectors, or worse, the police, who she fears could re-arrest her for her debt.

Ann Marie is not alone. Women are the fastest growing population of prisoners in America. Leaving prison, women are in hundreds, if not thousands of dollars in debt from court fines and fees. For women, this transition is especially difficult and the end of a jail sentence is the beginning of a whole host of new problems. Compared to their male counterparts, women in prison have higher rates of mental health issues, are less likely to be employed upon entering prison, and have a higher rate of being diagnosed with conditions like HIV. Women exiting the criminal justice system are frequently denied many public benefits as a result of incarceration and find even low-cost payment plans are an unbearable hardship. Many of these women are also mothers and have children they care for after they leave prison. Adding the threat of imprisonment forces women to sacrifice basic necessities in order to pay up. Criminal debt, unlike civil debt, does not have a statute of limitations and can be collected long after a person has exited the criminal justice system.

Recently, a group of civil rights lawyers in Ferguson, Missouri are questioning the jailing of individuals who are unable to pay court fees and fines. The Ferguson lawsuit alleges that it is unconstitutional to jail people for fines they owe without considering their ability to pay. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the State could not impose a fine as a sentence that would result in jail time simply because an individual was indigent and could not pay the fine. Such an action, the Court deemed, would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. However, the Supreme Court was not breaking new ground. Debtors' prisons have been illegal for almost two centuries. Yet, today, they are back in full force.

Jailing women who cannot pay does not make economic sense. It costs a significant amount of money to house an individual in jail for even one night. Placing a woman in jail for even a few nights may cost the city more than the fines the woman owes. It also only serves to make it harder for them to work and earn money to pay back the fines. A night in jail could mean loosing one's job altogether and loosing custody of a child again, in addition to other numerous collateral consequences.

Ann Marie is developing a relationship with her children again. She is working hard to prevent other women from struggling like she did. Yet, Ann Marie will spend the next 11 years of her life paying back the city in monthly installments. At least she will not be paying her "debt to society" in jail.