As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying The Price


According to surveys by the Justice Department, from 1991 to 2004, the percentage of prison inmates that owed court-imposed costs grew from 25 to 66 percent.

Many government services in the criminal justice system, which were once free, are now charged to defendants, many of which are low-income individuals who cannot afford them. By the 1980s, states started billing criminal defendants to reimburse taxpayers. These fees are now charged at every stage of the criminal justice system and can add up to hundreds and thousands of dollars. In some places, impoverished people are sent to jail when they fall behind in paying these fees. NPR conducted over 150 interviews with lawyers, judges, defendants, government officials, and advocates from each state to determine which government services defendants are required to pay. They found that defendants bear the increasing criminal justice system costs, causing poor people to face harsher treatment than those who commit identical crimes and can afford to pay.

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Key Findings:

  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
  • In at least 41 states defendants can be billed for room and board for jail and prison stays.
  • In at least 44 states defendants can be billed for their probation and parole supervision.
  • Collateral consequences for failure to pay court costs across the country vary from driver’s license suspension to loss of public benefits and jail time.
  • In a four-month period in 2013, one in four people in jail in Benton County were there because they failed to pay their court fines and fees.
  • Washington state adds 12 percent interest on costs in felony cases that accrues from the moment of judgment until all costs and interests are paid in full.
  • In 2011, there were 1.2 million outstanding warrants in New York City, many for unpaid court fines and fees.
Joseph Shapiro