In courtrooms around the country, people ensnared in the criminal justice system are charged money. They may be charged fees to enter the jail, fees for each day they remain stuck there, and surcharges to use the telephone. If they are able to secure release while they wait for the next stage of their cases, they may be charged fees to pay bail or to access a public defender. If convicted, people are often required to pay fines as a part of their sentences. People serving non-jail sentences like probation or community service are often charged fees to participate. These costs add up and can total thousands of dollars. Most Americans have extremely limited emergency savings, and the people stuck in the criminal justice system are typically struggling to make ends meet. Paying fees is a direct hit to their bank accounts and racking up bills can threaten to trap them in cycles of debt, future criminal justice consequences, and ever-more precarious economic situations.

Governments charge these fees to help support the costs of running local justice systems. And in response to the Great Recession more than a decade ago, jurisdictions around the country have raised fines and fees and increased their reliance on them as sources of revenue. But these costs are effectively a tax charged on the residents who are least able to pay to finance basic government services like courts. Compared to other sources of revenue, fines and fees can also be inconsistent, making predictable financial planning more challenging.

In partnership with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the State Priorities Partnership, Vera’s Justice Fines and Fees project is exposing the true cost of relying on fines and fees to fund criminal justice operations. Vera is conducting research and publishing analyses in Florida, New Mexico, New York, Virginia, and Washington to better understand how much governments actually collect in fines and fees, which agencies benefit from these collections, and how jurisdictions can instead fund their justice systems in a way that is both sustainable and fair. Vera will also produce a toolkit to guide others seeking to understand the true cost of fines and fees.