What Is Wrong with Monetary Sanctions? Directions for Policy, Practice, and Research


66 percent of incarcerated people have been sentenced to pay money to the courts or other criminal legal agencies.

Monetary sanctions are an increasing form of punishment for criminal offenses that have generated billions of dollars in revenue while also generating massive amounts of penal debt for low-income individuals. Across states and local jurisdictions, monetary sanctions vary greatly; the United States does not have any laws, policies, or practices on imposing and enforcing monetary sanctions. This article compares the policies and practices across and within eight states to identify variability in laws, policies, and practices and how it shapes outcomes and equality. The authors conclude that people who cannot afford monetary sanctions suffer additional penalties and extend their legal involvement, whereas those who can move on. The article also provides recommendations to reduce the scope of monetary sanctions, equalize access to justice and ensure equality under the law.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • Although all states require court actors to assess the ability to pay before deciding on willful noncompliance, states do it at different stages; Washington evaluates the ability to pay at sentencing, in Texas and Missouri, the defendant must request a hearing, and other states wait for the defendant to default on their monetary sanction before conducting an ability to pay evaluation.
  • The amount due at sentencing for driving with a suspended license varies from $62 in Texas to $3,480 in California.
  • Defendants unable to pay monetary sanctions are hit with “poverty penalties” such as driver’s license suspension, revocations or denial of renewal, and additional fees for warrants, court hearings, payment plans, and credit card payments.
  • Across the eight states, applications for driver’s license renewal ranged from $30 to $150, many requiring full payment of outstanding fines and fees before reinstatement.
  • Across states and jurisdictions, there’s variation in whether a person can pay their monetary sanctions online versus in person and who handles collection: clerk’s office, probation officer, or private collection agency.


  • Reduce or eliminate monetary sanctions whenever possible.
  • Mandate ability to pay evaluations for all defendants at the time of sentencing and grant waivers of all costs for people deemed unable to pay.
  • Eliminate garnishment processes.
  • At the time of sentencing, court actors should clearly articulate the full extent of monetary sanctions imposed and the costs of mandated programs, courses, and surveillance.
  • Decouple driving privileges for nonpayment of monetary sanctions.
  • Make data about criminal legal involvement and associated monetary sanctions publicly available.
Brittany Friedman, Alexes Harris, Beth M. Huebner, Karin D. Martin, Becky Pettit, Sarah K.S. Shannon, Bryan L. Sykes
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences