Criminal Justice Debt

An increasing number of states and localities seek to close budget shortages by charging those who interact with the criminal justice system for everything from public defense to food and other basic necessities for life in prison. As a result, indigent defendants and their families bear costs they cannot afford. Defendants remain entangled in the criminal justice system long after serving their original punishment, and can end up back behind bars due to their debt, worsening mass incarceration.

The Brennan Center remains at the forefront of identifying and drawing attention to the negative consequences and questionable constitutionality of criminal justice fees and fines. We seek to reduce the use of this practice and establish clear, effective ‘ability-to-pay’ assessments that bar imposition of court-ordered fines on those who cannot afford to pay. 

Cash-strapped states have increasingly turned to user fees to fund their criminal justice systems, as well as to provide general budgetary support. States now charge defendants for everything from probation supervision, to jail stays, to the use of a constitutionally-required public defender. Every stage of the criminal justice process, it seems, has become ripe for a surcharge.


Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law joined MSNBC’s Krystal Ball to discuss how defendants are being incarcerated for being unable to pay rising court costs.

Cash-strapped cities across the United States have begun charging jail inmates for room and board. Lauren-Brooke Eisen joins Post TV to discuss the constitutional and practical issues with pay-to-stay jail programs.