Skip Navigation

At least a few local­it­ies in nearly every state in the coun­try author­ize “pay-to-stay” fees on pris­on­ers for everything from medical costs, to food, to clothes. These fees are diffi­cult for the often indi­gent pris­on­ers and their famil­ies to pay, and can make success­ful reentry into soci­ety near impossible for some.

View Inter­act­ive Map

Read the Intro­duc­tion


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.