A Matter of Time The Case for Shortening Criminal Debt Collection Statutes of Limitations, a 50-State Survey

A Matter of Time 786x786


Legal financial obligations (LFOs) imposed on people in the criminal legal system trap many in cycles of poverty and punishment. When reducing the amount of debt that people owe is not viable, reducing the amount of time during which people are subject to court debt can offer significant relief from the burden and consequences of that debt. In this brief, Vera builds the case for using statutes of limitations (SOL) reform as an effective pathway for relief by outlining the scope and scale of the national LFO debt problem, describing the functions and capabilities of SOL reforms for criminal debt relief, and surveys the various periods of enforcement for criminal debts as compared to civil debts across all 50 states.

Key Takeaway

Reforming criminal debt SOLs is a powerful way to provide relief for people with crushing debt burdens and poses no significant cost to state governments. Leveraging SOLs allows governments to concentrate collection efforts on shorter periods of time and debts most likely to be repaid.

Publication Highlights

  • LFOs are regularly imposed on system-involved people, and their widespread inability to pay results in sizeable debt burdens. These debts disproportionately harm already marginalized people and communities. At the same time, government collection of LFOs is challenging, often unsuccessful, and offers diminishing returns over time.

  • Criminal debt holders are generally subject to much longer repayment periods than civil debt holders. At least as to nonpunitive court debt, the U.S. Supreme Court’s guidance in James v. Strange (1972) seemingly requires that there should not be disparities between civil and criminal collection rights.

  • Longer criminal debt SOLs do not necessarily lead to higher LFO collections. Criminal debt SOL lengths are not associated with dominant state political ideologies.

Key Facts