The Colbert Report Takes on Criminal Justice Debt


Last month, the satirical news show The Colbert Report shed light on a persistently troubling part of our nation’s justice system: criminal justice debt. As we’ve previously reported, the costs associated with being a low-income offender can be overwhelming as many states and localities charge fees and surcharges to fund the criminal justice system at every step of the process, from the courtroom to jail to probation. These may include fees for public defenders, jail fees, court administrative fees, prosecution fees, probation fees, parole fees, and more. Failure to pay these “poverty penalties” can lead to additional prison sentences or other consequences, such as the inability to obtain a driver’s license, that pose barriers to successfully re-entering society.

In show host Stephen Colbert’s segment “The Word,” he explains how many low-income offenders face one of two options: debt or prison. Amidst jokes about the U.S.’s high incarceration rate (number one in the world) and the ways in which prisons cut corners, he lays bare the modern-day debtors’ prisons caused by excessive fees. Colbert facetiously notes that the best part about these fees is that they are “self-sustaining investments,” explaining that “if a defendant can’t pay a fee, they go to jail, where they’ll rack up more food and boarding fees that they can’t pay, and be penalized with more jail time, thus increasing their debt, which gives them even longer prison sentences.”

Pro bono lawyers have a critical role to play in fixing an unjust system that increasingly criminalizes poverty and sends the poorest among us to jail for their inability to pay court costs. For more information about the problems of criminal justice debt collection policies and areas that advocates can target for reform, check out the Brennan Center for Justice’s report, “Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action” and NPR’s yearlong investigation, Guilty and Charged, which includes more than 150 interviews with lawyers, judges, offenders, government officials, and advocates.

Watch the video clip and let us know what you think.