Imposition And Collection Of Fines, Costs, And Restitution In Pennsylvania Criminal Courts

  • For cases handled by Pennsylvania’s courts of common pleas between 2008 and 2018, the assessment amounts totaled $524,512,146 for fines, $2,629,803,231 for costs, and $1,564,286,417 for restitution. The overall amount assessed is equal to more than $4.7 billion. 
  • The data showed that the median private client was assessed hundreds of dollars more in fines and fees than the median public defender client, but five and ten years after disposition,  private clients still owed much less court debt than public defender clients.

This research brief uses data from Pennsylvania’s common pleas courts from 2008 to 2018 to show how court fines, fees, and restitution affect clients of public defenders differently than people represented by private counsel.  The data shows that public defender clients still owe court debt five and ten years after their case is disposed, whereas private counsel clients have paid all of their fines and fees. The authors describe how fine, fee, and restitution assessments are experienced differently based upon race, gender, and across six counties and six county classes in Pennsylvania.    

You can read the full text of the brief here

Key findings

  • From 2008 to 2018, 450,320 people represented by private counsel paid $615 million, while 876,566 individuals represented by a public defender paid $432 million. 
  • While fees are imposed in almost all cases, fines are imposed in less than half of cases. Restitution is imposed in less than a quarter of cases. 
  • In 2013, the majority of people represented by a public defender owed $1,342 after sentencing, whereas people with private counsel owed $1,786. 
  • In most cases, court costs account for at least $1000. Court costs have increased over the past ten years and courts in Delaware County impose the same amount of court costs on people represented by a public defender as it imposes on people with private counsel. 
  • After five years, a person represented by a public defender still owes $689 in court fines and fees, while someone who retained private counsel has paid all of their court fines, fees, and restitution. Most public defender clients still owe court debt after 10 years. 
  • Fine and fee assessments of just a couple of hundred dollars can be difficult for someone to repay in full, especially for public defender clients. 


  • Policy analysts and decision makers should reconsider the relative priority that court costs are given in criminal justice processes which will require identifying and addressing the funding gaps that have led to the increased use of court costs.
  • More courts must consider a person’s ability to pay when imposing fines and fees. 
Jeffrey T. Ward, Temple University, Nathan W. Link, Rutgers University, Andrew Christy, ACLU of Pennsylvania
ACLU of Pennsylvania