The Debt Penalty: Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration


The National Center for Victims of Crime estimated criminal debt was more than $50 billion in 2011.

Contact with the criminal legal system often results in the assessment of fines and fees. For people who are indigent or subject to other financial obligations such as child support or restitution, the punishment for their inability to pay are late fees, high-interest penalties, bad credit, mounting debt, and re-incarceration–outcomes that can impede access to public health benefits and prolong involvement with the criminal legal system.  This report explores the causes and effects of criminal debt, including legal financial obligations, restitution, and child support, and offers solutions to encourage payment.

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Key Findings:

  • A Brennan Center study found the top 15 states with the highest prison populations all charge poverty penalties on individuals that cannot pay their criminal debt at once.
  • Ex-offenders owe as much as 60 percent of their income to criminal debts.
  • 13 to 18 million individuals cannot receive public benefits because of their criminal history in the United States.
  • Federal regulations outline how payments should be prioritized; child support and special assessments are prioritized before restitution.


  • Reform bankruptcy laws to reduce criminal debt.
  • Determine an offender’s financial viability and tailor payment schedules to their finances.
  • Prioritize restitution payments over other legal fees.
  • Improve data collection on criminal debt, restitution, and expenditures on debt collection.
Douglas N. Evans
Research & Evaluation Center John Jay College of Criminal Justice