Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Guide for Litigation

This guide aims to inform litigators about various strategies to defend and gain relief for individual clients burdened by criminal justice debt. It also serves to foster communication and understanding among stakeholders who work in this particular area of the justice system. The Guide also contains three checklists that call attention to key questions for advocates to consider when identifying litigation strategies.

This guide is the second publication in a three-part series produced by Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program and the National Consumer Law Center. You can read the full text of the Litigation guide here, and you can find our summaries of the first and third guides here.

Key Findings
  • “Successful representation regarding criminal justice debt issues requires open communication between client and counsel” […] “Counsel must develop a sound understanding of their clients’ financial status.”
  • Most states provide no guidance as to what facts may demonstrate ability to pay.
  • Bankruptcy may help clients with court debt. Compared to chapter 7, chapter 13 can provide relief from a somewhat broader, although not entirely comprehensive, variety of criminal justice debt because court debt is categorized as ‘unsecured debt.’ A “debtor’s plan [Chapter 13] may pay unsecured creditors at less than one-hundred percent of what they are owed, in some cases as low as zero to ten percent.”
  • In some jurisdictions, attorneys are able to modify or cancel a debt via a defensive proceeding, routine administrative hearing, and an affirmative petition.
Abby Shafroth, David Seligman, National Consumer Law Center, Alex Kornya, Iowa Legal Aid, Rhona Taylor, Nick Allen, Columbia Legal Services