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


Black Virginians make up 33 percent of all the traffic and criminal fines and fees despite only making up 19 percent of Virginia’s population.

Virginia’s courts impose millions of dollars of debt from fines and fees that excessively burden Black Virginians. Through an analysis of five years of data from the State Compensation Board (SCB), this report investigates the amount of fines and fees assessed and collected from 2015 to 2019. The study found a statistically significant relationship between the number of fines and fees assessed per capita and the share of the population that is Black. The report also includes stories of Virginians struggling to manage their legal debts and policy recommendations for Virginia lawmakers.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • Virginia netted almost $200 million in FY19 from fines and fees related to traffic and criminal cases.
  • Over the last five years, courts collected 62 percent of fines and fees assessed. 
  • In FY19, on average, all courts assessed $82 in fines and fees per capita, but courts serving areas with the highest share of Black residents assessed $147, and $106 for courts serving areas with the highest share of people living in poverty.
  • In FY19, of the $316 million in fines and fees assessed, $105 million was assessed against Black Virginians.


  • Remove fees that penalize poverty, such as the $10 fee for those that need more than 90 days to pay their court debt.
  • Give judges the ability to waive fines and fees at the time it’s imposed.
  • Provide community service standards across all courts.
  • The Virginia State Compensation Board should collect and publish data pertaining to the assessments and collection of fines and fees.
Phil Hernandez, Laura Goren, & Chris Wodicka
The Commonwealth Institute