A Matter of Time: The Case For Shortening Criminal Debt Collection Statutes of Limitations, A 50-State Survey


At least 26 states have unlimited enforcement periods for certain criminal debts such as fines, fees, and restitution.

Legal financial obligations (LFO) can trap people in poverty and the legal system. When reducing the amount of debt people owe is not a viable option, reducing the length of time during which people are subject to court debt can relieve the burden and consequences of that debt. This report makes the case for reducing statutes of limitations (SOL) on LFO debts, summarizing what’s known about LFO repayment patterns, sharing the results of a 50-state survey on statutes of limitation for debt, and providing guidance for SOL reforms. The report also highlights the differences in how SOL for civil debt and criminal justice debt are enforced. 

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Key Findings:

  • The median repayment period for criminal justice debt obligations is typically four times longer than debts for a civil judgment, 40 years and ten years, respectively. 
  • There are no states where civil debt SOL is unlimited, but in 17 states, fine and fee debt SOLs are unlimited.
  • There is not a strong association between longer criminal debt SOL and higher LFO collection.
  • States with unlimited fines and fee SOL do not generally collect higher fines and fee revenue than states that impose limitations on enforcing criminal justice debt.


  • Establish SOL periods for criminal court debt through legislative reform.
  • Set SOL periods to no more than the recommended three years.
  • Eliminate outstanding debt once the SOL has expired.
Maria Rafael and Stephen Lurie
Vera Institute of Justice