The Equal Protection Clause and Imprisonment of the Indigent For Nonpayment of Fines

The practice of imprisonment for failure to pay a fine levied for a criminal violation originated in twelfth-century England; its subsequent unanimous acceptance in the United States is manifested in the provisions in the statutes of every state and of the federal government authorizing imprisonment for nonpayment of fines. A few states not only commit the defendant to jail for nonpayment of the fine, but impose hard labor as well. Some states, however, have mitigated to a degree the harshness of the practice. For example, Arizona restricts the total period of confinement for the crime and the default of the fine to the maximum sentence authorized for the substantive offense. In addition, the majority of states have statutes which ameliorate the burden upon the indigent by providing for the discharge of “poor” prisoners after some minimum period of incarceration.