Given the increasing use of economic sanctions by state governments, people entering the criminal justice system are unlikely to leave it without incurring new debt. For example, Maryland law authorizes charges for everything from an individual’s initial arrest, to the costs of a constitutionally mandated public defender, to the costs of the individual’s supervision on probation or parole.
Most of these charges are unrelated to the criminal system’s putative goals of punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Instead, they are designed to subsidize state budgets. This growing category of debt—created by fees levied to generate revenue—is distinct from fines and restitution, the two more traditional categories of criminal justice-related “legal financial obligations,” or “LFOs.” Fines are the traditional monetary penalty, usually based on the severity of crime, imposed to punish an individual. Restitution, a court-ordered payment by the offender to compensate the victim for financial loss resulting from the crime, is rooted in a restorative justice approach that emphasizes repairing the harm of criminal behavior.
Revenue-generating “fees,” on the other hand, are assessed not for any criminal justice purpose, but rather to fund state budgets. They are imposed on a largely indigent population, rather than on the general tax-paying populace. And, they are imposed without regard to their impact on the ability of persons convicted of a crime to reenter society after completing court-mandated punishment. The parole supervision fee in Maryland—a monthly obligation of $40 that totals of hundreds of dollars over the course of the parole term—is just such a charge.