End Debtors’ Prison in Delaware

Poverty is not a crime! Please join us and write a letter to key decision makers to make debtors' prison in Delaware a thing of the past.

There were over 212,000 criminal or traffic filings in Delaware courts in 2019.* Over 95% of those filings were for misdemeanor crimes or violations-- the kind of petty offenses that aren’t supposed to ruin people’s lives. For people with money, these small mistakes merely result in a slap on the wrist. However, for people with few resources, even the most minor of violations turns into a life sentence of debt and poverty due to the current system of court fines and fees. It’s time for that system to change.

In Delaware, anytime a person is found guilty of a criminal or traffic offense, they are imposed a series of fees. These can be significant-- often turning a $50 fine into a $500 bill. Currently, Delaware Courts impose these fines and fees without any consideration of someone’s ability to pay.

Defendants who are unable to pay their court costs then face harsh consequences. Delaware issues warrants for arrest and suspends driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines and fees.   In 2017, 20,679 Delawareans had their license suspended for unpaid fines/fees. The ability to drive, and thus to get to work, is a necessity for most employment. We cannot expect people to support their families, let alone pay their court debt, if we take away their ability to get to work. Suspending drivers’ licenses for anything other than poor driving makes no sense.  

In 2017, Delaware issued 44,889 warrants for the arrest of persons solely because they had not paid court costs on non-felony offenses. These arrests had a disparate impact-- over 56.8% were to Black defendants. In the first 6 months of 2018, Delaware also sentenced 129 people to jail only because they could not pay court costs. Delaware is spending money to punish people for having no money.  

Key changes to start to fix the system.

  1. Waive all court costs for anyone who the State already decided is poor and in need of help-- anyone represented by a public defender or who receives needs-based public assistance.

  2. Stop collecting money from children-- an erasure of all fines and fees for juveniles.

  3. Get rid of the most predatory of court fees-- no fees for being represented by a public defender, for capiases for failure to pay, or for using a kiosk to make a payment.

  4. Suspend drivers’ licenses only for poor driving-- no suspension of licenses for capiases for failure to pay or failure to appear in court, and suspend drivers’ licenses for unpaid child support for only the most egregious offenders.

Many of Delaware’s leaders have said publicly that they support reforming fines and fees practice in Delaware. It’s important that we, the public, speak up to make sure reform happens quickly and meaningfully. This is too harmful a system for baby-step reform measures.

*excludes Voluntary Assessment Center tickets.