Skip Navigation
Research Report

Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action

  • Roopal Patel
  • Meghna Philip
Published: July 10, 2012

Criminal justice debt is a huge problem for the overwhelmingly indigent population of the United States criminal justice system. States charge a number of fees at every stage of criminal processing: fees for public defenders, jail fees, prison fees, court administrative fees, prosecution fees, probation fees, parole fees, etc. When these fees are applied without considering if a person can actually pay them or not, it can create enormous costs for the individuals ensnared in the criminal justice system.

Many offenders now serve multiple sentences because they cannot afford to pay. They often face another physical sentence, or as they struggle to make payments, they may suffer a host of collateral consequences that create barriers to re-entering society and raise the specter of re-imprisonment.

Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action examines the myriad problems that criminal justice debt collection policies create for the individuals in the criminal justice system, the communities they reside in, and the states who attempt to make money off of them. The report also analyzes the impact these charges have had on the states that attempt to collect fees from people who cannot pay them. The authors propose areas that advocates can target for reform, and present action materials that advocates can use to build a successful campaign to fight for more just policies.

Download the report and suggested reforms (PDF)

Download the action materials (PDF)


More jurisdictions are adding user fees at every stage of a criminal proceeding. While the fees can be an easy way to score political points or to theoretically fill budget gaps, without proper oversight, criminal justice debt policies often do more harm than good.

Double Jeopardy—the idea a person can only be punished once for an offense—has been a hallmark of the American criminal justice system. However, our justice system now routinely inflicts multiple punishments on those convicted of a crime. After serving the sentence of incarceration handed down by a court, a person is confronted with a bewildering array of fees and fines they must pay to the state. People who fail to pay the state may be faced with another sentence. Even as people struggle to make payments, they may suffer a host of collateral consequences that create barriers to reentry and raise the specter of re-imprisonment.

Some jurisdictions have haphazardly created an interlocking system of fees that can combine to create insurmountable debt burdens. Florida has added more than 20 new fees since 1996. In 2009, the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit organization, partnered with the Texas Office of Court Administration to report on criminal justice debt collection practices. The report found that a “sprawling number of state and local fees and court costs that state law prescribes as a result of a criminal conviction amounts to a nearly incomprehensible package.” In 2009, North Carolina instituted late fees for failure to pay a fine, and added a surcharge for being placed on a payment plan. Jurisdictions in at least nine states charge people extra fees for entering into payment plans, which are purportedly designed to make payments easier.

Furthermore, policymakers often fail to acknowledge realities of the criminal justice system that make collection of criminal justice debt difficult, if not impossible. The large majority of people going through the criminal justice system are poor. After conviction, punitive laws regarding the collateral consequences of criminal convictions make it exceedingly difficult for people to find the means to satisfy their debts.

Poor people are primary subjects of the criminal justice system. Estimates indicate that at least 80 percent of people charged with criminal offenses qualify for a court-appointed attorney. Every state has policies and laws that create collateral consequences of conviction, such as the loss of driver’s licenses or a professional license. These policies greatly restrict the ability of those convicted of crimes to find future employment. Many employers will not hire people with criminal records. Up to 60 percent of former inmates are unemployed one year after release. Criminal debt collection schemes do not take these realities into account, and therefore become counter-productive. Charging those who are unable to pay serves no purpose; persons unable to pay will not be any more able to pay simply because their debt has increased. Instead of raising revenues, these fees and fines may actually increase the costs for local governments, and increase the likelihood of recidivism.