Monetary Sanctions as Chronic and Acute Health Stressors: The Emotional Strain of People Who Owe Court Fines and Fees


“People described fear, constant stress, and anxiety about their inability to make complete or regular payments.”

Sentencing people to fines and fees who do not have the ability to pay or must choose between making payments and basic necessities can have detrimental effects on people’s lives and their health outcomes. The authors of this study analyzed data from 516 interviews with people sentenced to fines and fees across eight states to explore the association between monetary sanctions and stress, mental strain, and emotional exhaustion. They found the system of monetary sanctions creates acute and chronic stressors for people who are unable to pay their debts. 

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Key Findings:

  • People in households with legal debts are more likely to have lower overall health than individuals who do not.
  • Interviews found a significant association between carrying legal debt and working less due to health concerns.
  • Individuals with legal debt were less likely to receive mental health care, dental health care or follow-up care.
  • Interviewees faced chronic and ongoing stressors from their court-appointed payments and trying to balance their living expenses.
  • Respondents also identified additional stress and tension between their families and social networks because of their legal debt; court observations identified court officials telling people to ask their partners, parents and even friends for money to pay their legal debts.


  • Remove fiscal penalties as a sentencing option for people who are unemployed, lack disposable income, or are eligible for government assistance.
  • Make monetary sanctions proportionate to a person’s ability to pay.  
Alexes Harris and Tyler Smith
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of The Social Sciences