Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs)

Individuals convicted of crimes who are serving time on probation or in confinement and then reentering society from prison and jail typically have limited financial resources. Also typically, they have incurred some court costs, and may have one or many other legal financial obligations (LFOs): a fine, victim restitution, and appointed attorney reimbursement, as well as fees for supervision, program participation, electronic monitoring, confinement, health care in confinement, and more. Many people also have child support obligations, imposed in family court.

These LFOs are usually assessed and collected at different times by different entities representing different interests. Their uncoordinated assessment and collection leaves significant debts unpaid and puts successful rehabilitation and reentry in tension with making victims whole, supporting the well-being of children, satisfying criminal judgments, and funding the criminal justice system.

The CSG Justice Center’s Repaying Debts Project

The Repaying Debts project provides guidance to federal and state policymakers to better understand this array of issues and develop practical strategies to balance them. In 2007, the CSG Justice Center, with support from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance released Repaying Debts, a guide that introduces this national challenge and presents policy recommendations to increase accountability among people who commit crimes, improve rates of child support collection and victim restitution, and make people’s transition from prisons and jails to the community safe and successful. Building on this report, the CSG Justice Center worked with bipartisan groups in Idaho and Texas to clarify existing laws and processes and propose approaches to improve coherence in assessing and collecting financial obligations.

Since the publication of Repaying Debts, the country's economic woes have only intensified the challenges posed by LFOs for the criminal justice system, people convicted of crimes, and those entitled to payment of restitution and child support. Pressure on state budgets has left all three branches trying to do more with less and imposing more fines, fees, and surcharges on individuals to keep necessary systems functioning; a growing tendency to incarcerate individuals who do not pay these debts has led some to talk about a resurgence of "debtors' prison." Meanwhile, the same financial circumstances that are affecting state and local budgets are making it more difficult for individuals to obtain employment and pay LFOs.

In 2012, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the CSG Justice Center convened a group of policymakers from the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Department of Labor to identify related areas of overlapping interest, goals, and next steps for coordinating federal efforts to address this issue.

Below are publications and media clips on this topic from a variety of sources. Please note that unless identified as a Council of State Governments Justice Center publication, none of these materials represents the views of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Legal Financial Obligations Publications

Criminal Justice Debt Reform Builder

Criminal Justice Debt Reform Builder

This online resource from the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School provides easier access to state laws that govern criminal justice debt and suggests policy solutions.

Infographic: Jobs Not Jail

Infographic: Jobs Not Jail

This infographic from the Office of Child Support Enforcement contrasts the impactful costs and benefits, and displays how courts are successfully leveraging work-oriented services to achieve child support compliance from noncustodial parents who were once unemployed or underemployed.

Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families

Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families

This study from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design looked at the apparent and hidden costs of incarceration for families, including fees and fines, the impact on mental and physical health, and challenges in maintaining relationships.

Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration

Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration

This publication from the Brennan Center for Justice discusses court-imposed legal fees incurred by a substantial number of individuals who become involved with the criminal justice system, and the impact of such fees

Snapshot: Child Support

Snapshot: Child Support

The Child Support Program serves one in four of all children in the United States and one in two of all 
poor children and their families, serving those families from a child’s birth until adulthood. Child Support is a national program but policies and practices vary from state to state.

Restitution in Pennsylvania: Task Force Final Report

This report from the Pennsylvania Office of the Victim Advocate and Center for Schools and Communities presents recommendations to enhance the criminal and juvenile justice systems’ effectiveness by standardizing policies concerning the ordering, collection, and disbursement of restitution. Restitution in […]

Supervision Fees: State Policies and Practice

This article from the journal Federal Probation: A Journal of Correctional Philosophy and Practice traces the history of supervision fees in the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries. Supervision Fees: State Policies and Practice

Shadow Citizens: Felony Disenfranchisement and the Criminalization of Debt

This article argues that for individuals convicted of felonies in particular, criminal justice debt can serve as an insurmountable obstacle to the resumption of voting rights and broader participation in society. Shadow Citizens: Felony Disenfranchisement and the Criminalization of Debt

Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action–Action Materials

These materials from the Brennan Center for Justice–companions to this report–provide guidance for advocates who wish to change policies around criminal justice debt. Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action–Action Materials

Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action–Report and Recommendations

This Brennan Center for Justice report examines the problems that criminal justice debt collection policies create for individuals in the criminal justice system, the communities they reside in, and the states who attempt to collect money from them, and proposes areas advocates can […]

2011-2012 Policy Paper: Courts Are Not Revenue Centers

In 1986, the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) adopted a set of standards related to court filing fees, surcharges, and miscellaneous fees in response to a burgeoning reliance upon courts to generate revenue to fund both the courts and other […]

Making Restitution Real Toolkit

This online toolkit, developed by the National Center for Victims of Crime, is designed to build on the experience of professionals working to improve the collection of restitution and to capture practical and immediately useful resources for other practitioners, and contains […]

Making Restitution Real: Five Case Studies on Improving Restitution Collection

Across the country, policymakers, criminal justice officials, and victim advocates are becoming increasingly attuned to the problem of uncollected victim restitution. Even when ordered by the court, restitution often goes uncollected and victims remain without the financial resources they need to […]

Inmate Fees as a Source of Revenue

The Special Commission to Study the Feasibility of Establishing Inmate Fees, formed as directed by Massachusetts statute, was tasked with studying the feasibility of establishing inmate fees within Massachusetts’ correctional system. After examining the types and amount of fees to be […]

The Hidden Costs of Florida’s Criminal Justice Fees

Increasingly, states are turning to so-called “user fees” and surcharges to underwrite criminal justice costs and close budget gaps. This Brennan Center for Justice report focuses on Florida, noting that since 1996, the state has added more than 20 new categories of financial obligations […]

IN FOR A PENNY: The Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons

Presenting the results of a year-long investigation, this American Civil Liberties Union report argues that courts across the United States are routinely disregarding Supreme Court case law by collecting legal debts more aggressively from individuals who have already served their criminal sentences, regardless […]

Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry

Looking at practices in the 15 states with the highest prison populations, this Brennan Center for Justice report examines new “user fees” that many states are imposing on individuals with criminal convic­tions. The report argues that these fees impose severe – and […]

Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility

This collaborative effort between Pew’s Economic Mobility Project and the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States examines the impact of incarceration on economic mobility, noting that its effects reverberate beyond the individual to his or her children. The […]

Alternatives to Custodial Supervision: The Day Fine

This publication considers the idea of introducing and expanding fines as an alternative to criminal sanctions requiring direct supervision, either in the community or an institution. More specifically, this paper examines the implementation of income-calibrated fines, known as “day fines”–monetary penalties that take into […]

Maryland’s Parole Supervision Fee: A Barrier to Reentry

This Brennan Center for Justice report argues that Maryland’s supervision fee, implemented to raise extra revenue for general state functions, is largely uncollectible due to the dire financial situation in which parolees find themselves and that the paper debt it creates does […]

Resolution #18 – Offenders with Child Support Obligations

This resolution of the Association of State Correctional Administrators recognizes the prevalence of child support obligations among parents who are incarcerated and makes several recommendations for corrections agencies to help parents meet those obligations and maintain positive relationships with their children. […]

Repaying Debts

This publication from the Council of State Governments Justice Center discusses how policymakers can increase accountability among people who commit crimes, improve rates of child support collection and victim restitution, and make people’s transition from prisons and jails to the community […]

Debtors’ Prison: Prisoners’ Accumulation of Debt as a Barrier to Reentry

This paper describes the types of criminal financial sanctions levied against people as they make their way through the criminal justice system and the child support policies that lead to payment obligations that it argues are unrealistic and counterproductive. Cost-recovery policies […]

Application of NCSC CourTools “Measure Seven”

In an effort to obtain relevant information on how well Arizona courts are enforcing court-ordered monetary obligations, this research project applied the National Center for State Courts’ Measure Seven: Collection of Monetary Penalties in eight Arizona limited jurisdiction courts. Application […]

Court Debt and Related Incarceration in Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, individuals who owe money to the state because of past criminal convictions are frequently incarcerated because they fail to appear at ‘Ability to Pay Hearings’. Every year, thousands of individuals sit in the Rhode Island jail not […]

Restitution in Texas: A Report to the Legislature

A 2007 study by the Crime Victims’ Institute at Sam Houston State University looks at restitution in Texas and in other states, and concludes with a set of policy recommendations. Restitution in Texas: A Report to the Legislature

Re-Entry and Reintegration: The Road to Public Safety

This New York State Bar Association report addresses the effects of the criminal proceedings on individuals who have been convicted of a crime and on those who have served a period of incarceration in New York, as well as on […]

Who Pays for Penalty Assessment Programs in California?

In California, criminal offenders may have fines included in their penalties, and these may be enhanced by either special assessments or penalty assessments. These penalty assessments are based on the concept of an “abusers fee,” in which those who break […]

Making Work Pay: Promoting Employment and Better Child Support Outcomes for Low-Income and Incarcerated Parents

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice has prepared this report in response to concerns about child support debt – in particular as it creates a barrier to employment for low-income parents and works at cross-purposes with the goals of the child support program. Drawing on examples from other states, this report identifies a range of policies that inform child support practice in New Jersey and offers administrative, legislative, and programmatic solutions to address child support arrears owed by low-income and incarcerated parents.

Building Debt While Doing Time: Child Support and Incarceration

Although judicial discretion in child support cases has narrowed with the adoption of mathematical guidelines to determine appropriate child support awards and their modification, judges continue to play an important role in determining the circumstances sufficient to justify revision of […]

Repaying Debts

This Council of State Governments Justice Center publication discusses how policymakers can increase accountability among people who commit crimes, improve rates of child support collection and victim restitution, and make people’s transition from prisons and jails to the community safe and successful.
Read the full report
Read the summary

Legal Financial Obligations Media Clips

Media Clips on Supervision Fees

Publications on Legal Financial Obligations and Reentry

Media Clips on Legal Financial Obligations and Reentry

Publications on Legal Financial Obligations and Court Administration