Clearing the Path to a New Beginning: A Guide To Discharging Criminal Justice Debt In Bankruptcy

This guide outlines how criminal justice debt may be treated in Chapter 7 or 13 bankruptcy and details the types of fines, fees, and costs that can and cannot be discharged through Bankruptcy based upon various court rulings and legislation. The authors offer Bankruptcy as a mechanism to alleviate the collateral consequences caused by court debt and provide recommendations for how the Bankruptcy Code should be reformed.  

You can read the full text of the guide here

Key findings

  • Through Chapter 7 bankruptcy, fine and fee debt may be discharged if it is only for the purpose of compensating a loss and it is not punitive nor payable to a government entity, such as collection costs and interest on dischargeable criminal justice debt. 
  • Courts have ruled that bail bond debt owed to a bondsman is dischargeable. 
  • Restitution orders in a state criminal case are not normally discharged in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. 
  • Fees and costs related to a civil action are normally dischargeable. 
  • Section 525(a) of the Bankruptcy Code can be used to help someone restore their driver’s license during or after a Chapter 13 case.  
  • Someone who owes court debt may propose a more affordable payment plan schedule through Chapter 13 bankruptcy. 
  • There are exemptions to the automatic stay feature of Chapter 7 and 13 bankruptcy, which suspends collection, adjudication, and seizure efforts against a debtor. These exemptions allow certain actions to still be taken against someone who owes court debt such as probation revocations based on failure to pay restitution, garnishment of wages, and vacating prior sentences where jail time was substituted with fines.  


  • The Bankruptcy Code should allow all fees, charges, and surcharges to be discharged besides fines and penalties associated with felony convictions. 
Andrea Bopp Stark and Geoffry Walsh, National Consumer Law Center
National Consumer Law Center