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The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines

Brennan Center for JusticeA wealth of evidence has shown that the system of fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society. These people are often unable to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated court debt; when debt leads to incarceration or license suspension, it becomes even harder to find a job or housing or to pay child support. There’s also little evidence that imposing onerous fees and fines improves public safety.

This analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice shows that in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect. And because fees and fines are typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defendants and grows every year.