Debt Sentence: How Fines And Fees Hurt Working Families


17 million households with children likely experienced shortfalls in food, housing, healthcare, or other essentials because a parent was saddled with court debt.

Court-imposed debt impacts working families across all racial groups, political affiliations, and income levels. In the past ten years, a third of Americans have been directly affected by fines or fees related to traffic, criminal, juvenile, or municipal court. This report is the first national survey to examine how court-imposed fines and fees affect individuals and families. Researchers found that fines and fees debt creates hardships in people’s daily lives. Many respondents reported experiencing serious hardship, being impacted in three or more aspects of daily life.

Read and download the full report here.

Key Findings:

  • 86 percent of impacted respondents received fines and fees for a traffic ticket and 36 percent for a criminal proceeding.
  • One-in-three faced serious hardships from court-imposed debts.
  • 61 percent experienced at least one essential hardship–in housing, food, employment, health, child-care, or transportation– and 70 percent experienced at least one nonessential hardship–in educational opportunities, other bills and financial obligations, or leisure activities.
  • 99 percent of parents of minors had to cut back on at least one essential need.
  • 44 percent of Native American respondents face serious hardships compared to 33 percent of Black and White respondents and 34 percent of Hispanic respondents.
Wilson Center for Science and Justice and Fines and Fees Justice Center