Financial debt associated with legal system involvement is a pressing issue that affects the criminal justice system, offenders, and taxpayers. Mere contact with the criminal justice system often results in fees and fines that increase with progression through the system. Criminal justice fines and fees punish offenders and are designed to generate revenue for legal systems that are operating on limited budgets. However, fines and fees often fail to accomplish this second goal because many offenders are too poor to pay them.
To compound their financial struggles, offenders may be subject to other financial obligations, such as child support payments and restitution requirements. If they do not pay their financial obligations, they may be subject to late fees and interest requirements, all of which accumulate into massive debt over time. Even if they want to pay, offenders have limited prospects for meaningful employment and face wage disparities resulting from their criminal history, which makes it even more difficult to pay off their debt. An inability to pay off financial debt increases the possibility that offenders will commit new offenses and return to the criminal justice system.
Some courts re-incarcerate offenders simply because they are unable to settle their financial obligations. Imposing financial obligations and monetary penalties on offenders – a group that is overwhelmingly indigent – is not tenable. States often expend more resources attempting to recoup outstanding debt from offenders than they are able to collect from those who pay. This report explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment. Full Report (pdf)