Fines, Fees, And Bail- Payments In The Criminal Justice System That Disproportionately Impact The Poor


In some jurisdictions, about 20 percent of people in jail were held because of nonpayment of fines and fees and approximately one-third of felony defendants are detained pretrial because they cannot afford bail.

This brief provides introductory information about criminal justice fines, fees, and bail, and discusses why court systems across the United States became more reliant on these costs. The authors argue that fines and fees disproportionately impact people with fewer means and many states struggle to collect court debt because people cannot afford to pay. Lastly, this brief addresses issues with the modern-day bail system and presents reforms that could increase fairness and reduce pretrial misconduct.

You can read the full text of the brief here

Key findings

  • Between 1993 and 2012, criminal justice system expenditures increased by 74 percent, from $157 to $273 billion. 
  • In 1986, 12 percent of people who were incarcerated were also assessed a fine, but by 2004, 37 percent of the incarcerated population was sanctioned with fines. 
  • A Brennan Center report found that none of the 15 states included in the study had formal processes for tracking costs related to fine and fee collection. 
  • More than 25 countries across Europe and Latin America employ a system of day fines instead of fixed fines.
  • In 2012, 92 percent of people who were held on bail in Virginia had  a bond of  $5000 or cheaper.  
  • Between 1996 and 2014, the number of un-convicted jail inmates grew by 59 percent.
  • “A recent study finds that over 20 percent of felony defendants held on bail are very low risk, or have a one percent or lower estimated probability of re-arrest, suggesting that reforms to release decisions could reduce pretrial misconduct.”
Council of Economic Advisors