« Is it weird and worrisome or understandable and useful to have so much reporting about Elizabeth Holmes reporting to prison? | Main | New comments from Justice Breyer on punishment, sentencing, prisons, the death penalty and more »

May 30, 2023

"Debt Sentence: How Fines and Fees Hurt Working Families"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the the Wilson Center for Science and Justice and the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Here is the report's executive summary:

Food, healthcare, and shelter are essential for basic survival.  Beyond mere survival, we all have other fundamental needs, such as employment, access to transportation, or education.  No one would choose to forgo any of these necessities, unless there was a greater danger threatening their well-being.  For millions of families across the United States, court fines and fees threaten these basic building blocks of survival and stability.

Across the United States, courts impose fines as a punishment for minor traffic infractions, municipal code violations, misdemeanors, and felonies.  State and local governments then tax people with fees, surcharges, and other costs used to fund the justice system and other government services.  The entire fee system is designed for one purpose: raising revenue for governments.

We know the impact of court fines and fees is not just limited to those families living in or close to poverty; it is felt by working families across economic, racial, and political demographic groups. Court-related debt can often be in the hundreds — if not thousands or even tens of thousands — of dollars, which makes paying it off a struggle for many.  The Federal Reserve Board found that nearly one in four adults in the United States were just one unexpected $400 bill away from severe financial hardship (U.S. Fed. Reserve, 2022).  A report by the lending industry also found that in 2022 “[t]he share of those earning less than $50,000 who live paycheck to paycheck rose to 82%” (PYMNTS.com & Lending Club, 2022).

Despite the breadth of data showing how much U.S. families are struggling financially, there has been a lack of consistent and reliable data on the impact of monetary sanctions on those same families.  This study is the first to present a comprehensive, national overview of how court-imposed fines and fees are affecting people across the country.  Using data from a nationally representative survey, we examine the impacts of court-imposed debt on peoples’ daily lives.

Our findings reveal a disturbing trend unfolding among working families impacted by fines and fees: money needed for necessities like food, housing, and healthcare is often being redirected to pay off court debt.  Advocates for fines and fees reform have collected thousands of stories of families sacrificing basic necessities for fear of being jailed and arrested on account of outstanding court debt.  But for the first time, with this survey, we have national data documenting the extent to which fines and fees are destabilizing families and jeopardizing their ability to access the building blocks that support survival, stability, and a chance at success.

May 30, 2023 at 06:13 PM | Permalink


In recent years, there has been a large tension between the Public Defenders and the local District and Circuit Court Judges over the issue of defendants paying off fines and Court costs or being arrested and incarcerated until the fines and court costs are paid off at the rate of $50 per day ($100 per day if the inmate works in the jail's kitchen). On one hand, defendants are given months of time to pay off their fines and court costs, and can come back to court and request more time, which is usually granted. But if a defendant misses a Court date for payment or to ask for an additional extension of time, a warrant is automatically issued for his arrest. Upon arrest, he or she is kept in jail until the fines and court costs are paid off. The problem is that the Judges lock people up and leave them there without inquiring about the defendant's incomes, wealth, or ability to pay. Several times per month, poor defendants are arrested and locked up over unpaid fines and court costs, without a Judge ever talking to the defendant or her counsel, to determine whether she has any money or income to pay. Incarceration for contempt must be based on the defendant having the ability to pay but not handing over the money. But in too many cases, the defendants are just poor, unemployed and have no ability to pay. Some Judges don't seem to care whether they are violating the Constitution by locking someone up for a month over fines and court costs, even though they have no resources or job.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | May 31, 2023 1:15:24 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB