The Failed Promise of Installment Fines


For all too many, installment fines are unaffordable, endless, and arbitrarily administered—and applied instead of better and more equitable solutions.

When the Supreme Court reaffirmed, in 1970, that it was unconstitutional to incarcerate someone who is unable to pay a court fine or fee, it suggested that payment plans could be a viable option to keep people out of jail while the state still collected revenue. This article examines how, since then, rather than being a just solution, paying court fines and fees through installments has become another tool for the long-term oppression of those in the legal system with the least resources and opportunities. The article explores the history of fines-by-installment, the over-enthusiastic embrace of paying by installments in Fourteenth Amendment jurisprudence, and suggestions to address abusive installment regimes in the future. 

You can read the full text here.  

Key Findings:

  • Early use of payment plans was successful at preventing incarceration because fines were modest amounts and could be paid off in a short period of time.
  • Payment plans abandoned individualized assessments and humane aspects of their design and pushed out transformative solutions for people unable to pay their fines and fees.
  • Before Bearden v. Georgia, two court cases presented installment plans as the best alternative to incarceration due to the inability to pay fines–Williams v. Illinois and Tate v. Short.


  • Use the excessive fines clause as a source of protection against abuses of installment fines practices.
  • Eliminate fees and surcharges that increase the monetary sanction imposed and forgive debt related to them.
  • Automatically remove court debt on people without meaningful ability to pay after a certain amount of time.
Beth A. Colgan and Jean Galbraith
University of Pennsylvania Law Review