In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Criminal Justice Fines and Fees

  • Introduction
  • General Overview of Legal Fines and Fees
  • Jails and Prisons
  • Community Supervision
  • Legal Issues
  • Restitution
  • General Effects of Fines and Fees
  • Inability to Vote
  • Driver’s License Suspension
  • Impact on Families
  • Barriers to Reentry
  • Disproportionate Impacts
  • Ambiguity and Variability
  • Collection Issues
  • Guidelines and Suggestions for Reform

Criminology Criminal Justice Fines and Fees
Mitchell Farrell, Miriam Northcutt Bohmert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0328


In the United States, the criminal justice system’s use of fines and fees has increased dramatically in recent decades. This increase is largely attributed to tough-on-crime polices, subsequent mass incarceration, and budget cuts to state and local criminal justice agencies. Additionally, due to economic downturns, fines and fees imposed on individuals who encounter the criminal justice system have been increasingly used to fund a system which was previously supported by federal and state monies. Whereas fines are generally understood to refer to monetary sanctions for felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions, fees refer to legal financial obligations (LFOs) surrounding the areas of court processing, incarceration activities, and community supervision. The increased reliance on user fees for basic goods and services often contributes to financial strain on justice-involved individuals and their families. Though the distinction between legal fines and fees may seem rather small, fines were designed as part of the punishment process whereas fees were generally designed to supplement the operational costs of the Criminal Justice system. The sources presented provide important information in each of their respective categories related to differing aspects of LFOs.

General Overview of Legal Fines and Fees

Several sources have been written which cover the history and current state of fines and fees in the United States. Appleman 2016 provides a detailed summary of the history and present state of the criminal justice system’s reliance on fines and fees for funding and how this ultimately led to modern-day debtors’ prisons. The Canterbury 2015 article provides a broad survey examining why debt for justice-involved individuals has continued to grow and provides recommendations for successful collection of fines and fees. Council of Economic Advisers 2015 and Harris, et al. 2022 cover the state of fines and fees in the United States, also showing how they disproportionately affect minority members in society. Gordon and Glaser 1991 provides an early glimpse of how fines and fees were commonly used in municipal courts over thirty years ago. Harris, et al. 2010 also discusses several studies documenting the harmful effects of legal debt for justice-involved individuals. Martin, et al. 2017 provides a recent overview of research identifying the lasting, harmful effects of legal debt for those trying to re-enter society after incarceration. Martin 2020 provides a detailed analysis of the differing perspectives from which monetary sanctions have been studied across disciplines. McLean and Thompson 2007 provides a thorough description of relevant research and policy recommendations which would better enable formerly incarcerated individuals to effectively manage their LFOs. Finally, Ruback 2014 provides an overview of the existing rationales for and against the usage of LFOs in the criminal justice system.

  • Appleman, L. I. 2016. Nickel and dimed into incarceration: Cash-register justice in the criminalsystem. Boston College Law Review 57:1483.

    Appleman provides an overview of the history, reasoning, and current state of LFOs. This author highlights how increases in such fees and aggressive collection practices have contributed to modern-day debtors’ prisons. The author argues that these harmful consequences may be ameliorated by ensuring that due process rights are strictly observed in all aspects of the adjudication process where punishment may be levied.

  • Canterbury, S. 2015. The end of debtors’ prisons: Effective court policies for successful compliance with legal financial obligations. Conference of State Court Administrators 2015–2016 Policy Paper.

    Canterbury examines the growth of debt imposed by legislative bodies through courts and the incarceration that results from failure to pay. The author also details the consequences that incarceration may bring to individuals who cannot pay their LFOs. This article also presents the issues created by funding courts through fine and fee revenue and the impact of using private, for-profit entities to collect legal debt. 30 pp.

  • Council of Economic Advisers. 2015. Fines, fees and bail: Payments in the criminal justice system that disproportionately impact the poor. Washington, DC: Council of Economic Advisers.

    The Council of Economic Advisers examines three common monetary payments in the criminal justice system: fines, fees, and bail. These monetary payments are typically based on offense type and not based on the defendant’s ability to pay, which leads to a disproportionate impact on the poor. The payments also raise equity concerns because they are more punitive for poorer individuals compared to wealthier individuals who commit similar offenses.

  • Gordon, M. A., and D. Glaser. 1991. The use and effects of financial penalties in municipal courts. Criminology 29.4: 651–676.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.1991.tb01083.x

    Gordon and Glaser present findings on the use and effects of financial penalties in Los Angeles County. They focus on the characteristics of offenders receiving monetary sanctions, jail, probation, or a combination of these sanctions. Results suggest that judges have the greatest discretion when assessing monetary sanctions in conjunction with a condition of probation. Monetary sanctions were found to be associated with a lower likelihood of post-release criminal behavior.

  • Harris, A., H. Evans, and K. Beckett. 2010. Drawing blood from stones: Legal debt and social inequality in the contemporary United States. American Journal of Sociology 115.6: 1753–1799.

    DOI: 10.1086/651940

    These authors use court data to assess legal debt imposition and interview data to identify the social and legal consequences of legal debt. Findings indicate that monetary sanctions are imposed on a substantial majority of the millions of people convicted of crimes in the United States annually. Additionally, legal debt is substantial relative to expected earnings, which reproduces economic disadvantage by reducing family income and limiting access to resources and opportunities.

  • Harris, A., M. Pattillo, and B. L. Sykes. 2022. Studying the system of monetary sanctions. In Special issue: State monetary sanctions and the costs of the criminal legal system: The consequences of monetary sanctions. Edited by A. Harris, M. Pattillo, and B. L. Sykes. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 8.2: 1–33.

    DOI: 10.7758/RSF.2022.8.1.01

    Harris et al. provide one of the most recent reviews of state of the scholarly literature surrounding LFOs in this opening article of the Sage Foundation’s special issue on the topic. Generally, this article covers the scholarly work surrounding variation in policy and experiences from different locales and actors, the collateral consequences that stem from an overuse of LFOs, and how these consequences maintain systems of inequality.

  • Martin, K. D. 2020. “The plurality of perspectives on monetary sanctions”: An introductory essay. Sociological Perspectives 63.6: 901–920.

    DOI: 10.1177/0731121420970676

    Martin presents a review of several different perspectives used to research legal monetary sanctions across the disciplines of criminology, political science, public policy, sociology, economics, and applied research. The author finds that more recent studies are concerned with the problems and disproportionate impacts of these types of sanctions, whereas earlier studies mostly encompassed research related to the evaluation of statute/program implementation and success.

  • Martin, K. D., S. S. Smith, and W. Still. 2017. Shackled to debt: Criminal justice financial obligations and the barriers to re-entry they create. New Thinking in Community Corrections Bulletin 4:26.

    Martin, Smith, and Still discuss the long-term and unintended consequences of LFOs and find that they are imposed at multiple stages of justice involvement, generating complexities that are difficult to navigate. Additionally, financial sanctions are usually imposed without regard for an individual’s ability to pay, and yet failure to pay can trigger additional monetary and criminal sanctions.

  • McLean, R., and M. Thompson. 2007. Repaying debts. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.

    McLean and Thomson’s summary report (sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance) addresses the various types of debts that people released from prisons and jails typically owe. This truncated document provides an overview of the full report, including highlights of relevant research, and policies that should improve the likelihood that people released from prisons and jails or under criminal justice supervision will meet their court-ordered financial obligations. The authors also present practical recommendations for implementing these policies.

  • Ruback, R. B. 2014. The benefits and costs of economic sanctions: Considering the victim, the offender, and society. Minnesota Law Review 99:1779–1836.

    Ruback provides a broad overview of the history and current state of LFOs in the United States and a discussion of the arguments for and against their imposition. Ruback provides a comprehensive discussion of types of economic sanctions, including restitution, fines, costs, fess, assessments, and asset forfeiture. Ruback also highlights issues regarding these sanctions, such as determining ability to pay, tradeoffs between different sanctions, and prioritization of debts.

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