The American criminal justice system is replete with fees that attempt to shift costs from the government to those accused and convicted of breaking the law. Courts impose monetary sanctions on a “substantial majority of the millions of U.S. residents convicted of felony and misdemeanor crimes each year.” Every aspect of the criminal justice process has become ripe for charging a fee. In fact, an estimated 10 million people owe more than $50 billion in debt resulting from their involvement in the criminal justice system. In the last few decades, additional fees have proliferated, such as charges for police transport, case filing, felony surcharges, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and sex offender registration. Unlike fines, whose purpose is to punish, and restitution, which is intended to compensate victims of crimes for their loss, user fees are intended to raise revenue. The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on practices in Ferguson, Mo. highlights the overreliance on court fines as a primary source of revenue for the jurisdiction. The New York Times noted that the report found that “internal emails show city officials pushing for more tickets and fines.”
Fees and debts are increasing partially because the criminal justice system has grown bigger. With 2.2 million people behind bars, courts — and all the relevant agencies — have expanded as well. Since the 1970s, incarceration in the U.S. has risen steeply, dwarfing the incarceration rate of any other nation on Earth. The U.S. added about 1.1 million incarcerated people, almost doubling the nation’s incarcerated population, in the past 20 years. The fiscal costs of corrections are high — more than $80 billion annually — about equivalent to the budget of the federal Department of Education. A recent report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities finds that corrections is currently the third-largest category of spending in most states, behind education and health care. In fact, somewhat disconcertingly, 11 states spent more of their general funds on corrections than on higher education in 2013.
Fees already on the books have increased. And, these fees are extending into state and local corrections. As a result of these runaway costs, counties and states continue to struggle with ways to increase revenue to pay for exorbitant incarceration bills. In 2010, the mean annual state corrections expenditure per inmate was $28,323, although a quarter of states spent $40,175 or more. Not surprisingly, departments of corrections and jails are increasingly authorized to charge inmates for the cost of their imprisonment. Although this policy is alarming, less widely understood but equally troubling is the reality that these incarceration fees perpetuate our nation’s addiction to incarceration. This policy brief exposes how the widespread nature of charging fees to those who are incarcerated connects to the larger problem of mass incarceration in this country.