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The Unknown Cost of Criminal Fees and Fines

Public safety gets overlooked when local justice institutions become collections agencies.

  • Mike Crowley
June 18, 2020
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Bespalyi/Getty

Since the 1980s, “tough on crime” measures have led to aggressive and sometimes abusive policing, more incarceration, longer sentences, and increased criminal fees and fines. But the cost of chasing the revenue from fees and fines largely goes unrecognized and distorts what our courts and law enforcement agencies do. When courts and police departments prioritize collecting revenue over public safety, they are not working for the benefit of communities. 

A 2015 Justice Department investigation found that police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri were motivated more by revenue than public safety. Research shows that many counties depend on fees and fines for much of their police and court spending. The average county offsets 7 percent of the costs of public safety with fees and fines. But in 20 percent of counties, fees and fines provide the revenue that funds almost a third of public safety. For some counties, it’s much more. But at what cost? Based on data from three states — Florida, New Mexico, and Texas — the Brennan Center found that no one knows what criminal fees and fines cost: not the lawmakers who legislate these penalties, not the judges and the clerks in the courts that impose these financial obligations, and no one else in the justice system. It’s a problem we describe in the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review article If We Only Knew The Cost: Scratching The Surface On How Much It Costs To Assess And Collect Court Imposed Criminal Fees And Fines

Fees and fines are collected by a complex web of jurisdictions, courts, and agencies. To conduct research for the Brennan Center report The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines, we contacted judges, court clerks, public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, state departments of motor vehicles, and tax agencies. We evaluated courts and justice agencies in 10 counties across Florida, New Mexico, and Texas. We found that no one knows how much is spent imposing, enforcing, and collecting these court-imposed financial obligations.

To illustrate, no one tracks how much time courts spend imposing criminal fees and fines or holding hearings for ability to pay or nonpayment. With limited exception, court collection costs are unknown. The cost of jailing for nonpayment isn’t monitored. Police and sheriff’s departments don’t know how much they spend enforcing warrants for failure to pay. Parole and probation agencies don’t track time spent on fee and fine compliance.

Despite the lack of data, in the jurisdictions we researched, we estimated costs of $0.41 or more per dollar collected in criminal fee and fine revenue based on court watching and jailing for nonpayment. That’s only a partial reckoning, but it highlights tremendous inefficiency when states spend just a fraction of that collecting tax revenue. Consider, for example, that Texas spends just $0.31 and that New Mexico spends $0.95, respectively, to collect one hundred dollars of taxes.

Funding courts and criminal justice from fees and fines wastes justice system resources at the expense of public safety. They take time away from responding to 911 calls, lead to delayed or rushed court proceedings, and limit working with probationers and parolees to help them make a better start. Public safety gets overlooked when our local justice institutions become collections agencies. Of similar importance, spending resources on criminal fee and fine collection comes at the expense of meeting other critical community needs for education, housing, health care, and mental wellness.

The burden of criminal fees and fines typically falls on those who are least able to pay. While there is little reporting on amounts that go unpaid, we found $1.9 billion in unpaid court debts accumulated in Florida, New Mexico, and Texas between 2012 and 2018. In California, a rare example of statewide tracking, cumulative uncollected payments for criminal fees and fines totaled $12.3 billion in 2016. Much of this, according to the state legislative analyst’s office, would not be worth the cost of collection. Over the past year, California legislators considered a bill that would cancel many fees charged to criminal defendants. That legislation may fail over the potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. However, the cost of collecting that revenue has gone unrecognized.

State lawmakers need to understand the cost of collecting criminal fees and fines. In Texas, the state legislature recently canceled the Collection Improvement Program, which provides statewide reporting to track revenue produced by municipal, county, and district criminal courts. While the move took some pressure off the courts to produce revenue, it also gutted one of the only efforts to tracks the costs of collecting fees and fines. In Florida, New Mexico, and most other states, no one knows the cost of collecting fees and fines.

Criminal fees and fines are just one example of a sprawling criminal justice system built with little appreciation for — and sometimes negligible knowledge of — actual costs. With virtually every state and community buffeted by Covid-19 pandemic-induced fiscal woes, we can no longer afford to ignore the cost.

Mike Crowley is a former senior fellow with the Brennan Center.