Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry

This seminal report by the Brennan Center for Justice examines fines and fees practices in the fifteen U.S. states with the highest prison populations, focusing on “user fees” and their impact on individuals reentering society after incarceration. Broadly speaking, the authors found that states are adding new fees, increasing existing fees, and ramping up the collection of fines, fees, and restitution.

You can read the full report here.

Key Findings
  • “Criminal justice debt significantly hobbles a person’s chances to reenter society successfully after a conviction.”
  • All 15 of the states studied arrest people for failure to pay fines and fees or failure to appear at debt-related hearings.
  • 14 of the 15 states use “poverty penalties,” or additional late fees, payment plan fees, or interest when people are unable to pay immediately and in full.
  • States are not tracking the cost of collecting criminal justice debt (i.e. salaried time from court staff and law enforcement).
  • Reliance on fines and fees creates perverse incentives: “When courts are pressured to act, in essence, as collection arms of the state, their traditional independence suffers. When probation and parole officers must devote time to fee collection instead of public safety and rehabilitation, they too compromise their roles.”
  • “States should immediately cease arresting and incarcerating individuals for failure to pay criminal justice debt, particularly before a court has made an ability-to-pay determination.”
  • “Public defender fees should be eliminated, to reduce pressures that can lead to conviction of the innocent, over-incarceration, and violations of the Constitution.”
  • “Indigent defendants should be exempt from user fees, and payment plans and other debt collection efforts should be tailored to an individual’s ability to pay.”
  • “Legislatures should eliminate poll taxes that deny individuals the right to vote when they are unable to pay criminal justice debt.”
Rebekah Diller, Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagrecha
Brennan Center for Justice