Tip of the Iceberg: How Much Criminal Justice Debt Does the U.S. Really Have?

Considerable research has uncovered the financial burden and unintended consequences wreaked on the people charged with paying fines and fees. But there has been little, if any, investigation into how much court debt is outstanding or delinquent nationwide.

Understanding the full scope of our nation’s criminal justice debt problem is vital to the task of creating an equitable justice system. In an effort to obtain this critical information, the Fines and Fees Justice Center contacted judicial offices and government agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that might have data related to outstanding court debt. We chose to focus our investigation on court debt because courts keep a record of every case, and those records should specify the amount of fines and fees imposed at conviction. We assumed that courts routinely aggregated this data, allowing them to determine the amount of fines and fees assessed. We also assumed that courts would track how much of those fines and fees were actually collected.

But for half the country, that is not the case. What this means is that the full extent of our nation’s problem with court debt is shockingly untraceable and unknown. 

Reliable and current data is necessary to develop informed and effective public policy, and it is a vital tool to accurately judge the efficacy of a particular program and existing practices. In order to intelligently assess policy solutions, we need a complete view of every state’s court debt including, the total amount of fines and fees imposed, assessed, collected, and outstanding and data about the people who owe fines and fees, including eligibility for a public defender or public benefits and charges for which the debt was imposed.

This investigation conducted by Research and Campaign Associate, Briana Hammons, presents the findings of the data requests submitted to each U.S. state and the District of Columbia and our policy recommendations for outlining, assessing and solving our nation’s problem with court debt. 
Download the full report here.