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The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines

Summary: Court fees and fines unjustly burden people with debt just as they are re-entering society. They are also ineffective at raising revenue.

Published: November 21, 2019
Illustration of hands locked in a dollar sign
Adria Fruitos

Executive Summary

The past decade has seen a troub­ling and well-docu­mented increase in fees and fines imposed on defend­ants by crim­inal courts. Today, many states and local­it­ies rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic govern­ment oper­a­tions.

A wealth of evid­ence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehab­il­it­a­tion and creates a major barrier to people reen­ter­ing soci­ety after a convic­tion. foot­note1_roq83us 1 Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagre­cha, and Rebekah Diller, Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2010, 30, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ and Fines FINAL.pdf; Matt Ford, “The Prob­lem with Fund­ing Govern­ment Through Fines,” Atlantic, Apr. 2, 2015, https://www.theat­­ics/archive/2015/04/the-prob­lem-with-fund­ing-govern­ment-through-fines/389387/. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thou­sands of dollars in accu­mu­lated court debt. When debt leads to incar­cer­a­tion or license suspen­sion, it becomes even harder to find a job or hous­ing or to pay child support. There’s also little evid­ence that impos­ing oner­ous fees and fines improves public safety.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addi­tion to thwart­ing rehab­il­it­a­tion and fail­ing to improve public safety, crim­inal-court fees and fines also fail at effi­ciently rais­ing revenue. foot­note2_pao4hxl 2 Traffic offenses may be crim­inal in some juris­dic­tions and civil in others. The authors attemp­ted to include crim­inal traffic offenses but not civil traffic offenses. Juven­ile justice, noncrim­inal traffic infrac­tions, and resti­tu­tion were beyond the scope of this analysis, though the costs of each are consid­er­able. The high costs of collec­tion and enforce­ment are excluded from most assess­ments, mean­ing that actual reven­ues from fees and fines are far lower than what legis­lat­ors expect. And because fees and fines are typic­ally imposed without regard to a defend­ant’s abil­ity to pay, juris­dic­tions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defend­ants and grows every year.

This study exam­ines 10 counties across Texas, Flor­ida, and New Mexico, as well as statewide data for those three states. The counties vary in their geographic, economic, polit­ical, and ethnic profiles, as well as in their prac­tices for collect­ing and enfor­cing fees and fines.

Key Find­ings

  • Fees and fines are an inef­fi­cient source of govern­ment revenue. The Texas and New Mexico counties stud­ied here effect­ively spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise from fees and fines on in-court hear­ings and jail costs alone. That’s 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes and many times what the states them­selves spend to collect taxes. One New Mexico county spends at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises through fees and fines, mean­ing that it loses money through this system.
  • Resources devoted to collect­ing and enfor­cing fees and fines could be better spent on efforts that actu­ally improve public safety. Collec­tion and enforce­ment efforts divert police, sher­iff’s depu­ties, and courts from their core respons­ib­il­it­ies.
  • Judges rarely hold hear­ings to estab­lish defend­ants’ abil­ity to pay. As a result, the burden of fees and fines falls largely on the poor, much like a regress­ive tax, and billions of dollars go unpaid each year. These mount­ing balances under­score our find­ing that fees and fines are an unre­li­able source of govern­ment revenue.
  • Jail­ing those unable to pay fees and fines is espe­cially costly — some­times as much as 115 percent of the amount collec­ted — and gener­ates no revenue.
  • The true costs are likely even higher than the estim­ates presen­ted here, because many of the costs of impos­ing, collect­ing, and enfor­cing crim­inal fees and fines could not be ascer­tained. No one fully tracks these costs, a task complic­ated by the fact that they are spread across agen­cies and levels of govern­ment. Among the costs that often go unmeas­ured are those of jail­ing, time spent by police and sher­iffs on warrant enforce­ment or driver’s license suspen­sions, and proba­tion and parole resources devoted to fee and fine enforce­ment. This makes it all but impossible for poli­cy­makers and the public to eval­u­ate these systems as sources of revenue.


  • States and local­it­ies should pass legis­la­tion to elim­in­ate court-imposed fees. Courts should be funded primar­ily by taxpay­ers, all of whom are served by the justice system.
  • States should insti­tute a slid­ing scale for assess­ing fines based on indi­vidu­als’ abil­ity to pay. The purpose of fines is to punish those who viol­ate the law and deter those who might other­wise do so. A $200 fine that is a minor incon­veni­ence to one person may be an insur­mount­able debt to another.
  • Courts should stop the prac­tice of jail­ing for fail­ure to pay, which harms rehab­il­it­a­tion efforts and makes little fiscal sense.
  • States should elim­in­ate driver’s license suspen­sion for nonpay­ment of crim­inal fees and fines. The prac­tice makes it harder for poor people to pay their debts and harms indi­vidu­als and their famil­ies. Lawmakers should follow the approach taken by Texas, where recent legis­la­tion will rein­state hundreds of thou­sands of licenses. foot­note3_woygqbd 3 Tex. H.B. 2048, 86th Leg., R.S. (2019).
  • Courts and agen­cies should improve data auto­ma­tion prac­tices so that affected indi­vidu­als under­stand their outstand­ing court debts and poli­cy­makers can more thor­oughly eval­u­ate the effic­acy of fees and fines as a source of revenue.
  • States should pass laws purging old balances that are unlikely to be paid but continue to complic­ate the lives of millions, as some juris­dic­tions, includ­ing San Fran­cisco, have done. foot­note4_e3z152x 4 San Fran­cisco Office of the Treas­urer & Tax Collector, “San Fran­cisco to Become First County in the Nation to Elim­in­ate All Locally Controlled Fees Assessed from People Exit­ing the Crim­inal Justice System,” May 22, 2018, https://sftreas­­cisco-become-first-county-nation-elim­in­ate-all-locally-controlled-fees. This would also ensure that indi­vidu­als who have been free and clear of the crim­inal justice system for many years are not pulled back in simply on the basis of inab­il­ity to pay.

What’s the Differ­ence Between Fees and Fines?

Fines, imposed upon convic­tion, are inten­ded as both deterrence and punish­ment. In Texas, for example, a fine of up to $500 may be imposed for a low-level offense, such as a traffic viol­a­tion; a fine of up to $2,000 may be imposed for more seri­ous misde­mean­ors, such as harass­ment or minor drug posses­sion; and a fine of up to $4,000 may be imposed for the most seri­ous misde­mean­ors, such as unlaw­ful carry­ing of a weapon and assault with injury. foot­note5_jumy70g 5 Texas Penal Code §12.03 (1994).

Fees, by contrast, are inten­ded to raise revenue. foot­note6_y8hhijs 6 Joseph Shapiro, “As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price,” NPR, May 19, 2014. Often they are auto­mat­ic­ally imposed and bear no rela­tion to the offense commit­ted. In most cases, fees are inten­ded to shift the costs of the crim­inal justice system from taxpay­ers to defend­ants, who are seen as the “users” of the courts. They cover almost every part of the crim­inal justice process and can include court-appoin­ted attor­ney fees, court clerk fees, filing clerk fees, DNA data­base fees, jury fees, crime lab analysis fees, late fees, install­ment fees, and vari­ous other surcharges.

The Grow­ing Use of Fees and Fines — and the Damage They’ve Done

Since 2008, almost every state has increased crim­inal and civil court fees or added new ones, and the categor­ies of offenses that trig­ger fines have been expan­ded. Our justice system increas­ingly relies on fees and fines charged to defend­ants in crim­inal cases to fund basic oper­a­tions. foot­note7_06fcny2 7 Matthew Shaer, “How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor,” New York Times Magazine, Jan. 8, 2019,

For example, North Caro­lina collects 52 separ­ate fees, disburs­ing them to four state agen­cies and 611 counties and muni­cip­al­it­ies. It uses fees to fund half of the state’s judi­cial budget as well as jails, law enforce­ment, counties, and schools. foot­note8_la9lo32 8 Joseph Neff, “No Mercy for Judges Who Show Mercy,” Marshall Project, Nov. 29, 2017, https://www.them­arshall­pro­ Using fee and fine reven­ues to fund the judi­ciary can create perverse incent­ives with the poten­tial to distort the fair admin­is­tra­tion of justice. When crim­inal courts become respons­ible for their own finan­cing, they may prior­it­ize the impos­i­tion of signi­fic­ant fee and fine amounts and dedic­ate substan­tial staff to collect­ing these sums.

In Flor­ida, a signi­fic­ant portion of the funds raised through fees and fines is alloc­ated to the state’s general coffers. foot­note9_7sqqcfe 9 Flor­ida Clerks of Court, inter­view. Color­ado has used increased court fees to replace and update public build­ings, includ­ing a judi­cial complex and a museum. foot­note10_ndalrlj 10 Mark Harden, “Judi­cial complex, museum get go-ahead,” Denver Busi­ness Journal, June 4, 2008, https://www.bizjourn­­ies/2008/06/02/daily32.html?ana=from_rss. Flor­ida and Kentucky increased court fees as a way to address state fiscal crises. foot­note11_qddwbnc 11 Rebekah Diller, Court Fees As Revenue?, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2008, https://www.bren­nan­cen­; In Oklahoma, where a 1992 refer­en­dum made it nearly impossible for legis­lat­ors to raise taxes, lawmakers have increas­ingly come to rely on fees and fines to fund the state budget. foot­note12_p3cm8qy 12 Kate Carlton Greer, “Over The Years, Court Fines, Fees Have Replaced General Revenue Funds,” KGOU, Feb. 9, 2015, Some fee and fine revenue has even been used for personal perks: fees and surcharges alloc­ated to a judi­cial expense fund in Louisi­ana were found to have been spent on luxury goods, includ­ing supple­mental health insur­ance for judges, two Ford Exped­i­tions, a leather uphol­stery upgrade for a take-home vehicle, and a full-time private chef. foot­note13_uqsyk4z 13 Crim­inal Justice Policy Program, Confront­ing Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Guide for Policy Reform, Harvard Law School, 2016,­ing-Crim-Justice-Debt-Guide-to-Policy-Reform-FINAL.pdf.

This increase in fees and fines has exac­ted a steep human cost. Indi­vidual amounts may be small, but they can quickly add up, mean­ing indi­gent people may face hundreds or thou­sands of dollars in accu­mu­lated debt that they’e unable to pay. While “debt­ors’ pris­ons” have been declared uncon­sti­tu­tional, many states still incar­cer­ate people for fail­ure to pay crim­inal justice debt. And even when fail­ure to pay is not an expli­cit charge, jail sentences are handed down for fail­ure to appear or fail­ure to comply — infrac­tions that often stem from fail­ure to pay. In Socorro County, New Mexico, for example, one magis­trate judge has adop­ted a “three strikes” policy. For each missed payment of outstand­ing court costs, the court’s enforce­ment response progresses from a bench warrant, to a bench warrant with a bond, to a charge of fail­ure to comply that carries a three-day jail sentence. Each day spent in jail may then be cred­ited against the defend­ant’s outstand­ing debts. foot­note14_we9526b 14 Deborah Fowler et al., Pay or Stay: The High Cost of Jail­ing Texans for Fines and Fees, Texas Apple­seed and Texas Fair Defense Project, 2017, https://www.texas­apple­­Stay_Report_final_Feb2017.pdf. Under the guise of differ­ent charges, such a policy perpetu­ates the func­tion of a debt­ors’ prison.

In this way, crim­inal justice debt repres­ents a signi­fic­ant barrier to a person’s chances of success­fully reen­ter­ing soci­ety follow­ing a convic­tion. It also hurts the famil­ies of those who are incar­cer­ated, depriving them of a wage earner while adding new court costs to the defend­ant’s crim­inal debts. One study found that about half of famil­ies with convicted members cannot afford to pay fees and fines. Moreover, nearly two in three famil­ies who had a family member incar­cer­ated were unable to meet their house­holds’ basic needs, such as food and hous­ing. foot­note15_wrmr4wb 15 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights et al., The True Cost of Incar­cer­a­tion on Famil­ies, Sept. 2015, 7–9, https://ellabaker­cen­­loads/who-pays.pdf. States such as Flor­ida that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fees and fines only exacer­bate this economic distress, as those who lose their license may then lose their job as well as their abil­ity to take family members to school or medical appoint­ments and to drive them­selves to court.

There is also evid­ence that fees and fines are assessed in a racially discrim­in­at­ory way. A 2017 report by the U.S. Commis­sion on Civil Rights found that muni­cip­al­it­ies that rely heav­ily on revenue from fees and fines have a higher than aver­age share of African Amer­ican and Latino resid­ents. foot­note16_9ajiqog 16 U.S. Commis­sion on Civil Rights, “Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communit­ies of Color: Civil Rights & Consti­tu­tional Implic­a­tions,” Sept. 2017, 3,­utory_Enforce­ment_Report2017.pdf.

By now, these harms have been well docu­mented. But there has been much less research conduc­ted on the fiscal costs of fees and fines. This report aims to start filling that gap. Without an under­stand­ing of how much govern­ments are spend­ing to admin­is­ter fees and fines, and how much in fees and fines is never collec­ted, decision-makers can’t accur­ately gauge the effic­acy of these programs.

Report Terms

Assess­ment. As used in this report, assess­ment refers to the amount of the fee or fine imposed by a judge on a crim­inal defend­ant at senten­cing. For many minor offenses, assess­ments are made at the conclu­sion of a simple hear­ing before a judge or magis­trate in which the defend­ant makes a plea, the evid­ence is reviewed, and a decision is made by the judge or magis­trate. More complex and seri­ous crim­inal cases may involve separ­ate appear­ances in court, includ­ing an arraign­ment in which the charges are read and a defend­ant’s plea is accep­ted by the judge, a trial before the judge (and possibly a jury), and a senten­cing hear­ing, at which point fees and fines may be imposed by the judge.

Crim­inal justice debt. Crim­inal justice debt is composed of legally bind­ing finan­cial oblig­a­tions imposed on those convicted by crim­inal courts. While such debt may comprise fees, fines, and victim resti­tu­tion — payments ordered to victims as compens­a­tion — this report deals only with fees and fines (see below), which are recog­nized as revenue on the balance sheets of courts and other public agen­cies. In contrast to private and many civil debts, crim­inal justice debt is enforced by the crim­inal justice system and can result in the issu­ance of arrest warrants for nonpay­ment, crim­inal court hear­ings, addi­tional fines and court surcharges, deten­tion in jail, inclu­sion on crim­inal records, and — in some states — loss of voting priv­ileges.

Fines. Crim­inal fines are penal­ties imposed on defend­ants after convic­tion, inten­ded as both deterrence and punish­ment. The amount of a fine is set by stat­ute and based on the sever­ity of the crime. For misde­mean­ors, fines may be relat­ively small. For felon­ies, fines are typic­ally larger. Fines vary by juris­dic­tion and may be enhanced for repeat offenses. For example, each of the three states included in this study imposes fines as a penalty for drunk driv­ing. For a first offense, New Mexico assesses a $300 fine, Flor­ida assesses a $500 fine, and Texas may assess up to $2,000. In all three states, drunk driv­ing is an enhance­able offense, mean­ing that the penal­ties, includ­ing fines, escal­ate depend­ing on the number of prior offenses. foot­note17_u1tsurq 17 Fla. Stat. §316.193 (2019),­utes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Stat­ute&URL=0300–0399/0316/Sections/0316.193.html; New Mexico Motor Vehicle Depart­ment, “DWI Inform­a­tion,” http://www.mvd.newmex­­a­tion.aspx; Texas Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion, “Driv­ing While Intox­ic­ated (DWI),”­sion/traffic/safety/sober-safe/intox­ic­a­tion.html.

Fees. Crim­inal fees, unlike fines, are inten­ded to raise revenue. Often they are auto­mat­ic­ally imposed and bear no rela­tion to the offense commit­ted. In most cases, fees are inten­ded to shift the costs of the crim­inal justice system from taxpay­ers to defend­ants, who are seen as the “users” of the courts. Cash-strapped state and local govern­ments rely on crim­inal fees to raise revenue for other purposes as well, thereby avoid­ing the polit­ic­ally unpop­u­lar step of rais­ing taxes. Most juris­dic­tions impose certain fees on every defend­ant convicted, regard­less of the nature of the offense. For example, one convicted of a misde­meanor in Flor­ida is charged a $20 court cost fee, a $3 Court Cost Clear­ing Trust Fund fee, a $60 Fine and Forfeit­ure Fund fee, a $20 Crime Stop­pers Program fee, a $50 prosec­u­tion fee, a $50 crime compens­a­tion fee, and a $20 Crime Preven­tion Fund fee, and poten­tially others. foot­note18_n82m3ak 18 Fla. Crim­inal Proced­ure and Correc­tions Code §938.01–938.06 (2005). Other fees are offense-specific and imposed only on defend­ants convicted of certain offenses. For example, in New Mexico there are fees for defend­ants convicted of driv­ing under the influ­ence (DUI) or drug offenses. foot­note19_qxbm9ca 19 New Mexico Motor Vehicle Depart­ment, “DWI Inform­a­tion,” http://www.mvd.newmex­­a­tion.aspx. While fees may be imposed by courts, parole and proba­tion depart­ments, and jails and pris­ons, this report focuses on fees imposed by crim­inal courts follow­ing convic­tion. In some juris­dic­tions, fees may be referred to by another name. For example, some of the fees imposed by courts in Texas are called “court costs.” foot­note20_c9o6hcg 20 Texas Judi­cial Branch, “Filing Fees and Court Costs,”­a­tions-train­ing/public­a­tions/filing-fees-courts-costs.aspx.

Revenue. Fees and fines both serve as sources of revenue for state and local govern­ments. The permiss­ible uses for this revenue are typic­ally set by stat­ute. Many fees are earmarked for specific purposes, such as programs that divert defend­ants from prison, court­house main­ten­ance, or traffic safety educa­tion. Much of the revenue from crim­inal justice fees and fines is used to fund the judi­ciary or routed to law enforce­ment. In some cases it goes to a state or local­ity’s general fund, where it may be used for purposes wholly unre­lated to law enforce­ment or the courts. Fine revenue is disbursed accord­ing to stat­ute in each of the three states stud­ied. In each state, most fine revenue goes into a general fund at the state or muni­cipal level, though some is direc­ted toward partic­u­lar programs, such as road main­ten­ance or schools.

While state stat­utes prescribe the distri­bu­tion of funds collec­ted through the crim­inal justice system, the alloc­a­tion of revenue varies. For example, in New Orleans, the $11.5 million in crim­inal justice fees and fines collec­ted in 2015 was distrib­uted among eight agen­cies, provid­ing fund­ing for the muni­cipal court, district court, public defend­ers, and traffic court. foot­note21_lp294ja 21 Math­ilde Laisne et al., Past Due: Examin­ing the Cost and Consequences of Char­ging for Justice in New Orleans, Vera Insti­tute of Justice, 2017, 20–21,­a­tions/past-due-costs-consequences-char­ging-for-justice-new-orleans. In Allegan County, Michigan, half of court-imposed fees went toward running the county court­house, paying employee salar­ies, heat­ing the court build­ing, purchas­ing copy machines, and under­writ­ing the cost of the county employee gym. foot­note22_jck7hns 22 Shapiro, “As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price.”

Waivers. In some courts, judges have author­ity to reduce the amount of certain fees and fines imposed at convic­tion. foot­note23_p7gjbre 23 Neff, “No Mercy for Judges Who Show Mercy.” Amounts reduced without a quid pro quo (such as the perform­ance of community service in lieu of payment or time spent in jail) often are referred to as waivers. This is the mean­ing of the term as employed in this report. The issu­ance of waivers varies consid­er­ably among juris­dic­tions and states.

Jail cred­its. Some states waive fees and fines in exchange for jail time, which are referred to as jail cred­its and are distinct from the kinds of cred­its through which people earn reduc­tions to sentences. Though this altern­at­ive might be pitched as a bene­fit to those who want to discharge their debt in this manner, no one who has a choice and can make other payment arrange­ments would choose jail. Further, many defend­ants have no say in the matter. For example, one magis­trate judge in Socorro County, New Mexico, jails indi­vidu­als for miss­ing three payments without making a court appear­ance, regard­less of abil­ity to pay. foot­note24_bfossyq 24 Bren­nan Center original research (see Appendix B: Meth­od­o­logy). Perversely, people can accu­mu­late addi­tional fees during their stay in jail, leav­ing them with more debt than when they entered. foot­note25_gnglg63 25 Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “Paying for Your Time: How Char­ging Inmates Fees Behind Bars May Viol­ate the Excess­ive Fines Clause,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 15 (2014): 319–341.

In some states, includ­ing Alabama, Michigan, and Texas, when people are picked up on a warrant for a fail­ure to pay traffic tick­ets or fines, they may be jailed invol­un­tar­ily to pay off delin­quent crim­inal justice debt through cred­its issued for each day spent in jail. foot­note26_7audtyj 26 State Bans on Debt­ors’ Pris­ons and Crim­inal Justice Debt, Harvard Law Review 129 (2016): 1024–1045, https://harvard­lawre­­ors-pris­ons-and-crim­inal-justice-debt/. These cred­its do not gener­ate actual revenue but simply exchange jail time for debt reduc­tion at a great cost to the govern­ment. Jail­ing also comes at great cost to the people affected and their famil­ies. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that impris­on­ment for unpaid fines or fees without a hear­ing to determ­ine abil­ity to pay is uncon­sti­tu­tional. foot­note27_q8ud0fi 27 Bearden v. Geor­gia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983). If courts find that a defend­ant is unable to pay, they are required to consider altern­at­ives, such as defer­rals, payment plans, community service, and waivers. Unfor­tu­nately, in prac­tice, many courts fail to make these finan­cial determ­in­a­tions. foot­note28_1kgc9mw 28 “Settle­ment Requires L.A. Super­ior Court to Consider Drivers’ Inab­il­ity to Pay Traffic Fines,” Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union of South­ern Cali­for­nia, Oct. 8, 2018, Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union of South­ern Cali­for­nia, Octo­ber 8, 2018,­ment-requires-la-super­ior-court-consider-drivers-inab­il­ity-pay-traffic-fines.

Community service cred­its. Most states offer some type of community service option as an altern­at­ive to payment, though these prac­tices vary signi­fic­antly within and across states. foot­note29_gywom3y 29 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, 15–17. Some states offer programs assign­ing people to pick up trash or main­tain parks in lieu of a jail sentence or fine, while other states allow people to meet educa­tional require­ments to pay off their debt. Some types of community service require classes for certi­fic­a­tion (e.g., controlling traffic for the Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion), which can lead to employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies after the debt is paid. foot­note30_1kwbnsr 30 Ibid.

In some states, community service is seldom avail­able to defend­ants because judges feel pres­sure to raise revenue for their city or county. foot­note31_twff61r 31 Ibid., 30. For those who get the oppor­tun­ity, community service hours are often paid at the federal minimum wage, only $7.25 an hour, making it unreal­istic for people to devote the time neces­sary to work down their debt. This is even harder if they have jobs or are caring for family members. foot­note32_d3yj8xd 32 Ibid.

End Notes

Key Findings

A. Fees and Fines Are Inef­fi­cient for Rais­ing Revenue

The costs of fee and fine enforce­ment are huge. For example, in 2017 misde­meanor and traffic courts in Travis County, Texas, spent nearly $4.8 million on in-court proceed­ings and staff costs related to fee and fine compli­ance. In addi­tion, the county spent more than $4.6 million on jail­ing those who failed to pay fees and fines and those allowed to earn jail credit against amounts owed.

On aver­age, the juris­dic­tions in this report spent more than $0.41 for every dollar they collec­ted over the period stud­ied. Because of a lack of avail­able data, this figure counts only in-court and jail costs. foot­note1_ozh6u5h 1 This estim­ate is neces­sar­ily conser­vat­ive. The authors were not able to estim­ate a number of costs, such as time spent by law enforce­ment, DMV employ­ees, proba­tion and parole officers, and others. If all costs were meas­ured — includ­ing the sizable cost to law enforce­ment for warrant enforce­ment and arrests, the cost to Depart­ment of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices for processing suspen­ded licenses, and the cost to parole and proba­tion officers for fee and fine compli­ance foot­note2_35p43jo 2 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt. — it would be even higher. foot­note3_uux4hnr 3 Ibid.

Compare these collec­tion costs to the cost of rais­ing revenue through taxa­tion. The Internal Revenue Service spends just $0.34 for every hundred dollars in taxes collec­ted. foot­note4_8f1b­fc1 4 Internal Revenue Service, Internal Revenue Service Data Book, 2017, 66,­abk.pdf. In other words, it costs juris­dic­tions, on aver­age, 121 times more to collect crim­inal fees and fines even without includ­ing some of those costs — than it costs the IRS to gather taxes. Mean­while, Texas spends around $0.31 for every hundred dollars in taxes collec­ted. foot­note5_dllt­wck 5 United States Census Bureau, Annual Survey of State Govern­ment Tax Collec­tions, 2017,; Texas Comp­troller of Public Accounts, 2017, https://comp­­par­ency/budget/tools.php (computed based on FY 2017 expendit­ures). New Mexico spends roughly $0.95. It’s clear that general taxa­tion is signi­fic­antly more cost effect­ive than crim­inal fees and fines at rais­ing revenue. foot­note6_0ftb4yq 6 New Mexico Sunshine Portal, “Budget,” 2019, https://ssp2.sunshine­ (computed based on respect­ive tax agency expendit­ures).

B. Collect­ing Fees and Fines Detracts from Public Safety Efforts

Fees and fines are most often eval­u­ated by courts and crim­inal justice agen­cies, legis­lat­ors, and poli­cy­makers on the basis of the revenue they gener­ate, but they come at a great cost to the crim­inal justice system. When crim­inal courts impose fees and fines and then spend much of their resources collect­ing them, this leaves less to spend on true public safety needs. For example:

  • When police and sher­iff’s depu­ties are serving warrants for fail­ure to pay fees and fines, they are less read­ily avail­able to respond to 911 calls.
  • When courts sched­ule appear­ances for fail­ure to pay, proceed­ings for more seri­ous crimes can be delayed or rushed.
  • When community correc­tions officers spend much of their time remind­ing their clients to pay unaf­ford­able fees and fines, they have less time to work with people to help them break the cycle of repeated contact with the crim­inal justice system.

These are just a few examples; there are many more ways in which crim­inal justice agency efforts to coerce payment trans­lates into less time spent on more valu­able crim­inal justice work.

Put concretely and in dollar terms, almost every cent spent on fee and fine collec­tion is wasted as compared to collect­ing tax revenue. foot­note7_wc0gl2s 7 The calcu­la­tion is as follows: if the aver­age cost to juris­dic- tions to collect crim­inal fees and fines is at least $0.34 for every $1 collec­ted, and if it costs the IRS only $0.034 to collect a dollar of federal tax revenue, then the juris­dic­tion cost minus the IRS cost is $0.3366, or 99 percent of the IRS cost — the percent­age of wasted resources. State tax author­it­ies in some cases spend more or less than the IRS cost, but the argu­ment still holds that much of the fee and fine cost repres­ents waste or funds that could be put to better use. This is a funda­ment­ally inef­fi­cient way to collect revenue to support courts and other crim­inal justice agen­cies, and it does not make fiscal or economic sense.

C. Almost No Time Is Spent in Court Determ­in­ing Whether People Can Afford to Pay Fees and Fines

One reason that fees and fines are so inef­fi­cient as a revenue raiser is that each year millions of people are given sentences that include fines and fees they are simply unable to pay. From watch­ing more than 1,000 court proceed­ings in seven juris­dic­tions, the authors found that judges rarely hold abil­ity-to-pay hear­ings. While there are plainly up-front costs asso­ci­ated with such hear­ings, in the long run, juris­dic­tions would spend less money by hold­ing them rather than trying to chase down debts that cannot be paid.

D. Jail­ing for Nonpay­ment Is Costly and Irra­tional

The Supreme Court has held that “punish­ing a person for his poverty” is uncon­sti­tu­tional. Still, states and local­it­ies continue to jail large numbers of indi­gent defend­ants as a sanc­tion for unpaid crim­inal justice debt. Jail­ing people for nonpay­ment is by far the most expens­ive method of enfor­cing collec­tions and gener­ates little to no revenue making it highly uneco­nom­ical. In counties where courts incar­cer­ate for fail­ure to pay, the authors found that the cost of incar­cer­a­tion dwarfs other collec­tions costs. For example, in Berna­lillo County, New Mexico, jail costs repres­ent as much as 98 percent of the collec­tion costs docu­mented by the authors. foot­note8_zuwuiid 8 New Mexico collec­tions data provided at case level by New Mexico Judi­cial Inform­a­tion Divi­sion. Cost data calcu­lated through a combin­a­tion of court watch­ing, surveys, and analysis of cred­its (see Appendix B: Meth­od­o­logy).

Further, while the full costs are unknown, they are consid­er­able — with many jails in Texas and New Mexico report­ing costs per inmate per day clus­ter­ing around $55 to $65 or higher — and the costs negate or reduce much of the revenue that city, county, and state offi­cials believe that crim­inal fees and fines produce.

Often when someone is unable or unwill­ing to pay a fee or fine, the court issues a warrant. foot­note9_75cy­dii 9 Ted Alcorn, “Hand­cuffed and Arres­ted for Not Paying a Traffic Ticket,” New York Times, May 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes/com/2019/05/08/nyre­gion/suspend­ing-licenses-minor-offense-money.html. Frequently, indi­gent people do not appear on their court date, due to a trans­port­a­tion issue (they may have had their license suspen­ded), or because they have to work, or because they fear arrest for nonpay­ment. In these instances, courts often issue a warrant for fail­ure to appear, result­ing in addi­tional debt for the defend­ant and, in some juris­dic­tions, jail time. foot­note10_gytsiot 10 Ibid. Some defendents receive credit toward their debt at a state-determ­ined per diem rate for the time they spend in custody; others incur addi­tional debt in the form of jail fees; and some are released still owing the amount they owed before the warrant was issued. foot­note11_nyi7uwt 11 See Figure 5; N.M. Stat. § 30; Fla. tit. XLVI; Tex. Penal Code. Jail­ing is partic­u­larly coun­ter­pro­duct­ive not only because incar­cer­a­tion is extremely costly to juris­dic­tions but also because it dimin­ishes a person’s abil­ity to pay outstand­ing fees.

E. The Amount of Uncol­lec­ted Debt Contin­ues to Grow

A substan­tial portion of fees and fines is never collec­ted and is likely uncol­lect­able, mean­ing that these assess­ments are an unre­li­able source of govern­ment revenue that will always come up short.

No one knows how much is owed in total because few states and courts track this inform­a­tion — which is itself a prob­lem requir­ing atten­tion. But from 2012 to 2018, the states of Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas amassed a total of almost $1.9 billion in uncol­lec­ted debt. foot­note12_fw72fmr 12 See Figure 3; Bren­nan Center calcu­la­tions. And in each of the juris­dic­tions stud­ied here, the amount of unpaid debt grew signi­fic­antly over the period examined. Much of this debt is unlikely to ever be collec­ted, as those with low incomes lack resources to draw on for payment.

This high level of uncol­lec­ted debt demon­strates why fees and fines are such an unre­li­able way to raise revenue. It also hurts those who can’t pay, putting them at risk of incar­cer­a­tion, loss of their abil­ity to legally drive, voter disen­fran­chise­ment, and increased diffi­culty in getting a job. And courts keep track of debts in perpetu­ity, making it all but impossible for defend­ants to get out from under them.

F. Juris­dic­tions Do Not Track Costs Related to Collect­ing Fees and Fines

For the most part, juris­dic­tions do not know how much it costs them to collect fees and fines. Of the three states stud­ied, only Texas system­at­ic­ally tracks some of the costs for court collec­tion units. But even there, the picture is incom­plete. No juris­dic­tion tracks any of the follow­ing: the court costs for fee and fine admin­is­tra­tion, the cost to public defender systems for deal­ing with their clients’ fees and fines, the cost to parole and proba­tion systems for fee and fine enforce­ment (whether they engage in collec­tions or simply remind their charges constantly to pay their court debts), the cost to DMV offices processing license suspen­sions or state tax agen­cies processing offsets, and the cost to law enforce­ment for warrant enforce­ment or arrests for fail­ure to pay or suspen­ded driver’s licenses.

Though Texas collects some data on the costs of jail­ing people who fail to pay fees and fines or are allowed to earn jail credit against amounts owed, most courts and other crim­inal justice agen­cies do not track and report such costs.

G. Fees and Fines Are a Regress­ive Tax on the Poor

Revel­a­tions that cities like Ferguson, Missouri, collect millions in fees from poor citizens sparked a national debate in 2014 about pred­at­ory and regress­ive policies target­ing vulner­able communit­ies. foot­note13_0q6w­fcg 13 Joseph Shapiro, “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR, Aug. 25., 2014, The city relied on rising muni­cipal court fines to make up 20 percent of its $12 million oper­at­ing budget in fiscal year 2013. foot­note14_jym8se2 14 Depart­ment of Justice, Invest­ig­a­tion of the Ferguson Police Depart­ment, 9,­ments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_depart­ment_report.pdf But Ferguson is not alone. As detailed below, fee and fine assess­ments in each of the states stud­ied amount to signi­fic­ant costs for the people who pass through the crim­inal justice system, many of whom are poor. Across the three states, billions of dollars are charged without regard to abil­ity to pay. Accord­ing to the Federal Reserve, many Amer­ic­ans are unable to pay an unex­pec­ted bill of $400. foot­note15_qq5s09t 15 Federal Reserve, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. House­holds in 2018,” https://www.feder­alre­­a­tions/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-house­holds-201905.pdf. The fees and fines charged in these three states may well be more than what the aver­age defend­ant can afford (and the notice­able growth of unpaid fee and fine debt bears this out). This is partic­u­larly so where evid­ence exists that poli­cing frequently has a dispro­por­tion­ate impact on margin­al­ized communit­ies. foot­note16_d4ekqw4 16 Frank R. Baumgart­ner, Derek A. Epp, and Kelsey Shoub, “What 20 Million Traffic Stops Reveal About Poli­cing and Race in Amer­ica,” Schol­ars Strategy Network, June 1, 2018, https://schol­­cing-and-race-amer­ica.

End Notes


Courts rely excess­ively on crim­inal fee and fine prac­tices that are costly and inef­fi­cient, unfairly burden the poor, and do little to deter crime or improve public safety. Reforms are urgently needed.

A. States and Local­it­ies Should Elim­in­ate Court-Imposed Fees

Courts need to be funded adequately. But even under a conser­vat­ive estim­ate of the costs of collec­tion, fees are an inef­fi­cient source of revenue. In addi­tion, they fall dispro­por­tion­ately on the poor and create perverse incent­ives. And they trans­fer the oblig­a­tion of taxpay­ers to fund courts to defend­ants in the justice system, even though the system serves soci­ety as a whole. State legis­lat­ors should alloc­ate appro­pri­ate fund­ing to courts from their general funds and repeal legis­la­tion requir­ing courts to raise their own revenue by impos­ing fees.

B. States Should Require Courts to Assess Fines Based on Abil­ity to Pay

The purpose of fines is to deter people from viol­at­ing the law and punish those who do. But a $200 fine may repres­ent an insur­mount­able obstacle to one person and a minor incon­veni­ence to another. Char­ging people amounts they cannot pay is draconian. State legis­latures should stat­utor­ily scale fines accord­ing to a defend­ant’s wealth and how much he or she earns in a day, adjus­ted for essen­tial expenses and oblig­a­tions such as child support. In addi­tion to ending the dispro­por­tion­ate punish­ments given to the poor, slid­ing-scale fines would more effect­ively incentiv­ize the wealthy to obey the law. Stud­ies show that slid­ing-scale fines can increase both collec­tion rates and total fine revenue. foot­note1_3ggxrsf 1 Bureau of Justice Assist­ance, How to Use Struc­tured Fines (Day Fines) as an Inter­me­di­ate Sanc­tion, U.S. Depart­ment of Justice, Mandat­ing that fines are calib­rated accord­ing to abil­ity to pay would also drastic­ally reduce the resources alloc­ated to collec­tions — since fines that are manage­able are more likely to be paid — and reduce the burden on indi­gent defend­ants, creat­ing a more effi­cient and just system.

C. Courts Should Stop the Prac­tice of Jail­ing for Fail­ure to Pay

In the three states stud­ied here, 46 percent of fees and fines were not paid. foot­note2_oofzoi5 2 See Figure 3; Bren­nan Center calcu­la­tions. Some­times courts waive fees and fines for those unable to pay, and some­times they offer credit for court-ordered community service. Too frequently, however, they jail people for nonpay­ment. foot­note3_apojfjw 3 Alcorn, “Hand­cuffed and Arres­ted.” Incar­cer­a­tion as a penalty for unpaid debt not only is uncon­sti­tu­tional but, as a prac­tical matter, makes little economic sense. It provides no revenue bene­fit and is cost­lier for courts and taxpay­ers than simply forgiv­ing the debt. foot­note4_9gnijki 4 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt, 25.

D. States Should Elim­in­ate Driver’s License Suspen­sion for Nonpay­ment of Crim­inal Fees and Fines

This punish­ment, too, is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. foot­note5_d5nueaj 5 Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Apple­seed, Driven by Debt: How Driver’s License Suspen­sions for Unpaid Fines and Fees Hurt Texas Famil­ies, 2017, http://stor­ies.texas­apple­ As with incar­cer­a­tion, suspend­ing someone’s driver’s license makes it less likely that he or she will be able to pay the debt, as it is diffi­cult to hold a job in most parts of the United States without access to a car. License suspen­sion also hurts famil­ies that depend on their cars to buy grocer­ies, trans­port their chil­dren to school, get medical care, and provide for other needs. Suspen­ded license enforce­ment becomes a need­less, costly prior­ity for law enforce­ment person­nel who could be deployed more effect­ively to prevent or respond to seri­ous crime.


E. Courts and Agen­cies Should Improve Data Auto­ma­tion Prac­tices

As the authors learned, many states and local juris­dic­tions are in the dark about the amount of crim­inal fees and fines that are unpaid and outstand­ing. In part this is the result of well-inten­tioned auto­ma­tion efforts that prior­it­ize more recent and crit­ical case data over older data. In other cases, as the authors found in some local courts, basic oper­at­ing records and ledgers remain unauto­mated, making it hard to quickly collect inform­a­tion on case­loads, amounts owed, and amounts paid. Given the risk of arrest and other consequences for nonpay­ment of crim­inal fees and fines, courts are under an oblig­a­tion to ensure that relev­ant data is easily retriev­able and regu­larly updated to reflect actual amounts waived, cred­ited, paid, and owed. Such efforts would serve poli­cy­makers as well, allow­ing them to more system­at­ic­ally assess the inef­fi­ciency of rely­ing on fees and fines as a revenue stream.

F. States Should Pass Laws Requir­ing Purging of Old Balances That Are Unlikely to Be Paid

As detailed in this report, tremend­ous amounts of old fee and fine debt will never be collec­ted but continue to burden millions of people. Juris­dic­tions are unlikely to receive revenue from arrears of any kind that go back many years, espe­cially from those least able to pay. Finan­cial profes­sion­als have long employed account­ing meth­ods such as “allow­ances for doubt­ful accounts” to identify uncol­lect­ible debts and assign them a value of zero for purposes of prepar­ing finan­cial state­ments. Some juris­dic­tions, such as San Fran­cisco, have adop­ted this kind of finan­cial prac­tice and wiped millions of dollars in uncol­lec­ted debt off the books. foot­note6_ig6g0g2 6 Joshua Sabat­ini, “SF Abol­ishes Abol­ishes Crim­inal Justice Fees,” San Fran­cisco Exam­iner, May 22, 2018, http://www.sfex­am­­ishes-crim­inal-justice-fines-fees. Courts should more widely adopt these prac­tices in track­ing and report­ing outstand­ing balances of crim­inal fees and fines, recog­niz­ing that older debts have little prospect of ever being paid. States should require courts to report on uncol­lec­ted fees and fines and issue peri­odic waivers or adjust­ments in cases where signi­fic­ant addi­tional payment is unlikely. In addi­tion to provid­ing relief to the least well-off defend­ants, it would free public agen­cies from expend­ing resources trying to chase down uncol­lect­ible debts.

Click here to down­load the full report [PDF].

End Notes