“Cost of Doing Time” for BBC World Service

Listen here: The Cost of Doing Time on the BBC World Service.

Rufus Taylor led a pretty sheltered life growing up in Philadelphia, but he likens his late teen years to a kind of “Rumspringa” (a time when Amish-born teenagers “run around outside the bounds”). Taylor’s “Rumspringa” however, didn’t take him to nightclubs, but rather resulted in multiple counts of car theft and ultimately, a charge for armed robbery. He served a total of 13 years in prison and is on probation. When he completed his sentence in 2008, he thought his time had been served, and his debt – both financial and moral – was settled. Then in 2011, he applied for welfare and was denied because he had apparently not paid off all of his debts – he owed the courts almost $42,000, an amount never mentioned when he was released.

Taylor is one of more than 300,000 people in the city of Philadelphia who owe an estimated $1.5 billion dollars in unpaid bail, fees and fines to the courts that date back to 1971. The debt collection affects one in five people, in a city of 1.5 million.

This documentary examines the complexity of criminal court debt, which is a growing problem in cities and towns across the United States trying to pay for increasingly expensive prison systems.

A 4-min version of this story aired on Marketplace, along with an analysis of the more than 200,000 court records in question. Data analysis and visualization by Amanda Hickman.