The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines, A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties

This Brennan Center research report analyzes the numerous disadvantages of the current criminal justice fine and fee systems of ten counties in Texas, Florida, and New Mexico.  The authors conclude that criminal justice fines and fees are not a viable source of court and government funding; that these costs harm people who cannot afford to pay them; and that public safety is compromised because law enforcement resources are devoted to collection. Furthermore, because the costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, actual revenues are far lower than expected. The recommendations presented in this report are intended to create a fairer system that reduces the ways in which individuals are unduly burdened by fines and fees.  

You can read the full text of the report here.

Key findings
  • Fines and fees are an unreliable and inefficient source of government revenue. For example, a county in New Mexico spends $1.17 or more to collect each dollar of fines and fees. 
  • Resources used to collect and enforce fines and fees could be diverted to improve public safety.
  • Judges rarely hold ability to pay hearings. 
  • Jailing someone for unpaid fines and fees can cost as much as 115 percent of the amount collected from the individual. Jailing people who cannot pay fines and fees is costly, unconstitutional, and irrational. 
  • The total cost of managing current fine and fee systems cannot be known and is probably higher than what is projected in this report. 
  • States and localities should pass legislation to eliminate court-imposed fees and institute a sliding scale for assessing fines based on an individuals’ ability to pay. 
  • Courts should stop the practice of jailing for nonpayment of fines and fees. 
  • States should stop suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of criminal fines and fees.
  • Courts and agencies should improve data automation practices so that affected individuals understand their outstanding court debts and policymakers can thoroughly evaluate the efficacy of fees and fines as a source of revenue.
  • States should pass laws purging old balances that are unlikely to be paid.
Matthew Menendez, Michael F. Crowley, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Noah Atchison
Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law