Hidden Price of Justice: Fines and Fees in DC’s Criminal Legal System


The DOC garnishes at least half the monthly wages that incarcerated DC residents earn.

The use of criminal legal fines and fees to to fill state and local budgetary gaps has deep roots in a history of anti-Black racism. That history is evident in Washington, DC where the regressive nature of these financial obligations and the high costs of incarceration criminalize, extract wealth, and create collateral consequences that disproportionately impact Black and low-income communities. This report details the harms of fines and fees in DC’s criminal legal system, particularly for those unable to pay, and the perverse incentives created by using fines and fees to fund core government services. The authors use interviews with four formerly incarcerated DC residents to highlight the need for systemic reforms and provide recommendations to mitigate these harms in DC.

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Key Findings:

  • In federal BOP facilities, people who do not make payments towards their fines lose privileges such as access to commissary spending, denial of higher pay opportunities for work assignments, and denial of drug treatment and community-based programs.
  • D.C residents can be incarcerated for up to a year for unpaid court financial obligations.
  • The DOC and BOP require anyone with outstanding financial obligations to pay their debt in full as a condition of release, and failure to do so can result in re-incarceration.
  • Revenue from Mayor Bowser’s addition of 342 traffic cameras in 2023 is expected to double between fiscal years 2024 and 2025.
  • Criminal fines range from $100 for minor offenses to $125,000 for offenses punishable by 30 years or more.
  • Workers in local DOC facilities earn up to $.50 per hour; a 15-minute phone call is more than double the hourly earnings for someone incarcerated in local DOC facilities.
  • DOC charges a 9 percent surcharge on all commissary goods — on average, generating over $2 million annually between 2018 and 2023. 
  • The work release program in DC requires incarcerated workers to pay fees on their wages, effectively functioning as a 20 percent income tax.


  • Improve transparency by investing in data systems that can collect, coordinate, and report on criminal fines and fees.
  • Eliminate incarceration and supervision-related fees.
  • Provide economic support for those with criminal legal involvement and their families.


Michael Johnson Jr.
The DC Fiscal Policy Institute