Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Rent?

This article dives into Arkansas' failure-to-vacate statute that criminalizes being late on rent and how civil legal aid lawyers are challenging it in court.

Investigative, News Story (Arkansas)

Eli Hager
Marshall Project
April 16, 2015
Link to story

Tags: Benefits of Legal Aid, Housing: Landlord-Tenant

Organizations mentioned/involved: Arkansas Access to Justice Commission (AATJ), Legal Aid of Arkansas (LAA) (Jonesboro, AR)


Smith’s case is not unusual in Arkansas, the only state in the nation that classifies the nonpayment of rent (while remaining on the property) as a criminal act, punishable by up to 90 days in jail. In every other state, disputes over rent are considered a civil matter, in which the worst that can happen is eviction. But if a landlord in Arkansas claims that a tenant is even one day late in making a payment, he can stick the tenant with a ten-day notice to vacate. If the tenant has not vacated after the ten days, the landlord may file an affidavit for an arrest warrant, which the local sheriff will then promptly carry out.


“This is really the worst of what we call the ‘criminalization of poverty,’” says Amy Johnson, the executive director of Arkansas Access to Justice and an expert on landlord-tenant policies in the state. “You see it elsewhere, with debtors’ prisons – people sentenced to jail only because they can’t afford to pay fees,” as well as the quality-of-life policing used in some cities, by which the homeless are arrested for loitering in the street.


As a result of Arkansas v. Smith, renters in Little Rock – Arkansas’ largest and most populous jurisdiction – no longer face criminal prosecution if they fall behind in paying rent. Ever since, legal aid attorneys have been mounting a district-by-district operation to take down the law. “We will use [Smith’s] case as persuasive authority in similar cases,” says Jason Auer of Legal Aid of Arkansas, which is spearheading the effort along with the ACLU.