Fines and fees in the justice system: Ending a practice that traps people in cycles of debt and despair

Jurisdictions across the country have laws requiring people to pay fines and fees for various nonviolent offenses and other types of engagement with the criminal legal system. People can be ticketed for even minor infractions like jaywalking, charged to enter a jail, and then charged additional fees for each day they remain there. The financial burden of fines and fees disproportionately impact people living in poverty, often trapping them in cycles of debt and incarceration.

Experts estimate that these fines and fees total tens of billions of dollars. One survey by NPR, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Center for State Courts found that 48 states increased fees in the criminal and civil legal systems from 2010 to 2014.

Fines and fees exist in every jurisdiction and at various stages of the criminal legal process, from arrest and sentencing to incarceration, probation, and parole. These predatory fines and fees disproportionately punish people who can’t afford to pay—who are far more likely to be Black people or other people of color—trapping them in cycles of debt and legal consequences. Vera is working to end this practice that drains critical financial resources away from the most vulnerable.

[Fines and fees] use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans—the people who can afford it the least.

Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center

The grave effects and racial injustices of fines and fees

People who cannot pay fines and fees risk a spiraling set of consequences—such as losing their driver’s licenses, incurring additional debt through interest or late fees, and risking arrest or jail time. However, for all the harm caused, revenue collected through fines and fees typically makes up a tiny fraction of government budgets.

A person with a felony conviction who works minimum wage in Washington State would typically be charged 127% of their approximate monthly income

In 2015, Vera began to research the grave effects of fines and fees to better understand the issue and craft strategies to end the harmful practice. We conducted interviews with impacted people and analyzed court records and budgets in locations spanning New Orleans to Washington State. Our research revealed the devastating cumulative toll of fines and fees on people, especially those living in poverty, as well as the discriminatory targeting of financial burdens on Black people and other people of color.

Our team is expanding upon this research to uncover the full costs of fines and fees in states and cities across the country and to develop and institute policy reforms that end these discriminatory harms.