Can You Go to Prison for Failing to Pay Back Taxes to the IRS?

by Michael Wolfe ; Updated April 19, 2017

Every year a number of people file incorrect tax returns, either through unintentional error or with the sole purpose of paying less money. Of these, the Internal Revenue Service will file audits for only a small percentage. If it's found that the taxpayer owes additional taxes, it's more likely that he'll face a penalty rather than spend time behind bars.


If the IRS believes that a person has made tax return errors, such as underreporting income, the agency will take one of several actions. In most cases, the IRS will initiate an audit in an attempt to verify how much money the individual owes. The IRS will then initiate a civil tax proceeding or a criminal case.

Civil Tax Proceeding

A civil tax proceeding works very much like a civil court case. Under a civil tax proceeding, the IRS orders the individual or business to pay a certain amount of money after determining how much the defendant owes in back taxes. If the defendant does not pay the taxes owed, the IRS will take various actions to collect the taxes, such as garnishing the defendant's income. Taxpayers cannot end up in prison for failing to pay taxes assessed in a civil proceeding.

Criminal Tax Proceeding

In limited cases, the IRS will opt to prosecute a person for tax fraud. In order to successfully prosecute an individual, the IRS must show that the person willfully ignored the tax code and withheld taxes not out of ignorance, but as part of a premeditated plan. According to the online magazine "Slate," this can be very difficult to prove. However, this is the only way in which a person who fails to pay back taxes can end up in prison.


According to the Internal Revenue Service, in fiscal year 2010 it initiated only 1818 criminal investigations. Of these, it recommended prosecutions in only 1090 cases. The rest were either settled or dropped, leading to 1011 indictments. This led to 867 people being sentenced, each of whom received an average term in prison of 33 months. More people received sentences in fiscal year 2010 than in the previous two years, and those convicted tended to receive longer sentences.

Bottom Line

According to Slate, the IRS tends to launch criminal prosecutions against high-profile tax evaders. A far greater number of individuals are dealt with through civil proceedings.

About the Author

Michael Wolfe has been writing and editing since 2005, with a background including both business and creative writing. He has worked as a reporter for a community newspaper in New York City and a federal policy newsletter in Washington, D.C. Wolfe holds a B.A. in art history and is a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y.