Set Up to Fail: How Court Fines & Fees Punish Poverty and Harm Black Communities in Virginia



  • Black residents account for 19 percent of Virginia’s population, however, 33 percent (or $105 million) of all traffic and criminal fines and fees were assessed against Black residents in 2019.



While Virginia has stopped suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees, this report shows how the state’s fine and fee policies still trap its citizens, especially Black residents, into cycles of poverty and court debt. Virginia courts assess various fees to people who cannot pay their court debt at the time it is imposed and the authors’ research supports that Virginians who are poor or Black share a disproportionate amount of court assessments. The publication discusses the differences in repayment plans and community service programs across the state and puts forth recommendations to address these issues. 

You can read the full text of the report here

Key findings

  • A $30 fine for an improper U-turn can balloon into a $218 debt after fees are added for processing, entering a payment plan, writing a bad check, using a credit/debit card, failing to appear, and collection.    
  • From FY 2015 to 2019, $2.3 billion of fines and fees were assessed but only $1.4 billion, or 62%, was collected. 
  • $82 was the average amount of fines and fees assessed per capita while $106 and $147 of fines and fees were assessed per capita in courts serving areas with the largest share of people living in poverty and largest share of Black residents, respectively. 
  • In 2019, on average, at least $31 in traffic and criminal fines and fees was assessed for every non-Black Virginian, while at least $65 was assessed for every Black resident of Virginia. 
  • Virginia law allows courts to charge people $10 if they cannot pay their full court debt balance in 90 days and a minimum down payment of $50 or more to initiate a payment plan depending on the jurisdiction. Interest also starts to accrue on debt if no payment is made after 40 days. 
  • There are no statewide standards that govern community service as a method of repaying court debt, so hourly rates, program eligibility, and restrictions vary across the state. 


  • Eliminate poverty penalties such as the $10 fee assessed to people who need more than 90 to pay their debt, mandatory down payments assessed to participate in payment plans, and waive all interest that accrues while someone is incarcerated. 
  • Require the Virginia State Compensation Board to collect and publish data concerning fine and fee assessments and collections by race and ethnicity. 
  • Grant courts clearer power to waive fines and fees and establish common standards for all community service programs across the state. 
Phil Hernandez, Laura Goren, and Chris Wodicka
The Commonwealth Institute