The Price of Justice: Fines, Fees and the Criminalization of Poverty in the United States


Nearly half of the people jailed in the U.S. have individual incomes below $10,000.

Mass incarceration and the rising cost of the justice system correlate with the high number and value of fines and fees imposed throughout the justice system. As federal funding for criminal justice decreased, political pressures to minimize taxes increased, and state and local governments began using fines and fees as a revenue source for the justice system and other government services. In a justice system where 67 percent of the prison system is composed of people of color, and 90 percent of people charged with a felony or misdemeanor are indigent, fines and fees fall disproportionately  on communities of color and low-income individuals. This has resulted in monetary obligations that the majority can not afford to pay. This report highlights problems with fines and fees in the U.S. criminal legal system, its criminalization of poverty, particularly in communities of color, and constitutional doctrines that apply to fines and fees. It also highlights reform efforts and personal narratives from people across the country who have been impacted by the criminalization of fines and fees. 

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Key Findings: 

  • The consequences for nonpayment of fines and fees vary across states; they include increasing the amount owed, suspending driver’s licenses, being jailed, being placed on pay-only probation, and losing voting rights.
  • 41 states and the District of Columbia will revoke, suspend or not allow a person to renew their driver’s license due to unpaid fines and fees.
  • The Stanford Open Policing Projected examined 93 million traffic stops between 2011 and 2017  and concluded that Black drivers are 20 percent more likely to be stopped by law enforcement than White drivers.
  • Some states require judges to impose mandatory minimum fines as high as $750,000 in addition to compulsory prison sentences in felony cases.
  • Fees fund the justice system and other government programs; the range and number vary across different jurisdictions.
  • Fees are imposed across all stages of the justice system, from before arrest to throughout custody.
  • New York adds surcharges on all convictions, which goes directly to the state general fund, $300 for felony convictions, $175 for misdemeanor convictions, and $95 for traffic and other violations.
  • The incarceration rate has increased by 500 percent in the last 40 years, and from FY 1979-80 to FY 2012-13 state spending on corrections increased from $17 billion to $71 billion.
  • Due process doctrine has been one of the most successful doctrines in challenging fines and fees, specifically in cases like Cain v. White and Caliste v. Cantrell. 


  • Eliminate fees from the criminal legal system.
  • Make fines proportionate to the offense and the individual.
  • End the imposition of fines on people who are serving time in custody or under supervision.
  • Imposed fines should be an alternative to custody.
  • Give people access to reasonable payment plans.
Lisa Foster
University of Miami Race & Social Justice Law Review