Saddled with Debt, Indigent Defendants Face New Paths Back to Prison

October 4, 2010

Two New Studies Shed Light on Overlooked Aspect of Criminal Justice System

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, Brennan Center for Justice, (646) 292-8322;

New York – States are increasingly imposing onerous “user fees” on those convicted of crimes, making it almost impossible for the indigent to repay their debt and successfully re-enter society, according to separate reports released today by the Brennan Center for Justice and American Civil Liberties Union.

You can find the Brennan Center report here.

The two reports shed light on one of the most overlooked aspects of the criminal justice system: the fees imposed on the convicted, are often used to underwrite the criminal justice system, and in some cases, other state functions as well.  Both reports note that because of tight state budgets, courts are imposing new and higher fees and are becoming more aggressive in collecting them. These efforts, in turn, fall disproportionately on the poor.

“People are emerging from the criminal justice process with significant debts that they cannot hope to repay,” said Rebekah Diller, Deputy Director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center, and one of the co-authors of the study.  “As a result, these fees are creating new paths back to prison for those unable to pay.” 

The Brennan Center for Justice report is the first systematic legal analysis of this phenomenon and examined user fee practices in the 15 states with the largest prison populations, representing nearly 70 percent of prisoners nationwide. The American Civil Liberties Union studied criminal debt collection in Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio and Washington.

“We are creating a two-tiered system of justice in which the poorest among us are punished more harshly than those with means,” said Vinita Gupta, the ACLU’s Deputy Legal Director. “Moreover, these efforts don’t serve the taxpayer well. Often courts are spending more money incarcerating someone for failure to pay a debt than the amount of the debt itself.”

Among the key findings of the reports are:

  • Legal debts pose a significant, and at times insurmountable, barrier for indigent persons attempting to re-enter society after a conviction.
    • There is a disturbing uptick in both the dollar amount and the number of criminal justice fees imposed on offenders. Officials face increased pressure to collect debt. The result is an array of consequences policymakers have not considered.
    • States impose significant “poverty penalties” in the form of late fees, collection fees, and other surcharges – sometimes as rates as high as 30 to 40 percent of the underlying debt – on those unable to pay their debts at once.

    Among the key recommendations of the reports are:

    • States should stop jailing individuals for failure to pay criminal justice debt before an ability-to-pay determination. Payment of the debt should not subject the defendant or the defendant’s dependents to substantial financial hardship.
    • Public defender fees should be eliminated to reduce pressures that can lead to conviction of the innocent, over-incarceration, and violations of the Constitution. At the very least, defendants should not be ordered to pay defender fees they cannot afford.
    • All jurisdictions should disclose fee collection costs, including incarceration, so taxpayers can assess the effectiveness of collection efforts.

    For more information or to set up an interview, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin.