Debtor’s Prison: How Fines and Fees Trap Poor Americans in the Justice System

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Violating criminal law can lead to considerable expenses, including pre-trial, court, prison, and post-release fines and fees. The growing debt of those who are released from correction facilities is not helping them to integrate back into society, but rather leads to more crime and poverty. Read on to learn about criminal justice fines and fees, and how they affect vulnerable populations.

How high are criminal justice fines and fees?

When people enter the criminal justice system, they may find themselves trapped by steep fees associated with pre-trial, sentencing, corrections, and post-release. As a person moves through the system, fees and fines follow. On average, such fees and fines can amount to $14,000-$25,000 for those who were convicted of drug-related charges. In one case, a woman owed nearly $100,000–an immense burden for someone re-entering society after serving years behind bars. In many cases, small fees pile up and can reach thousands of dollars. According to the latest estimations, 10 million Americans collectively owe more than $50 billion in fines and fees–debt accumulated through the criminal justice system. Most of them are convicted of non-violent and, often, drug-related offenses. They are also disproportionately poor and minorities. Surprisingly, even a minor infraction can result in jail time for those who are poor and unable to pay fines and related fees.

How does the system of fines and fees work?

Fines are “monetary charges imposed upon individuals who have been convicted of a crime or a lesser offense.” It can be a traffic violation or any other crime, but fines for drug crimes are notoriously high. Oklahoma Watch gives some estimates of fines for drug-related offenses:

A conviction for sale or distribution of 25 to 1,000 pounds of hashish or concentrates comes with a maximum $100,000 fine…A third misdemeanor conviction of possessing marijuana paraphernalia brings a maximum one year in prison and $10,100 fine.

At the same time, a felony count of driving under the influence amounts only to $443, a big difference from drug crimes that can lead to tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and, in some cases, a lengthy prison sentence.

If a fine is imposed as a result of a crime, fees are charged for administration and providing services, or simply to supplement state and local budgets. There are a myriad of fees that American courts, prisons, and probation services impose on those who are channeled through the criminal justice system.

Pre-Trial Fees

Pre-trial fees are charges that are imposed on a person prior to a formal conviction. It starts with a fingerprinting fee ($5) and a jail fee for pre-trial incarceration ($25). An application fee to obtain a public defender could be also quite costly, ranging from $10 to $400 depending on the state. At least 43 states and the District of Columbia bill defendants for a public attorney. In some states this fee cannot be waived even for the poorest of defendants. In Florida and Ohio, a public defender fee is required even if charges are eventually dropped. Often, public defender fees are imposed when one applies for a public attorney, during the initial court proceedings, and at the end of the trial–the so-called public defender reimbursement fee. If one wants to post bond to be released while court proceedings are taking place, the bond fee is required (around $35) plus the bond amount determined by the judge. Some states also bill defendants for their own arrest warrants and charge a fee for a jury trial. For example, in Washington, a six-person jury costs $125, while a 12-person jury is twice as much.

Sentencing Fees

During the sentencing process a person is charged with a crime and either convicted or acquitted. In most drug cases, defendants plead guilty as mandatory sentencing laws can land one in prison for a long time versus pleading guilty to a lesser charge that requires probation supervision or a short period of time in jail. In any case, one ends up paying fees for court administrative costs, designated funds that can include libraries and prison construction, and prosecution reimbursement fees.

Courts often order lab tests, including DNA collection and drug testing. The fees for lab analysis can reach $165. If mandatory drug treatment is ordered, one has to make payments to revolving funds for drug education ($155) and any additional fees associated with drug treatment.

Other fees can be collected to assist crime victims. These fees are usually paid to a trauma-care fund, or for mental-health services for the victim. At the same time, restitution payments can be ordered to compensate a victim.

In Washington, a convicted person is presented with the Legal Financial Obligations (LFO), which include fines and fees as well as other costs associated with a case. In addition to the initial amount of the bill, the state charges 12 percent interest and $100 per year for a collection fee if one chooses to pay over time. The average felony conviction bill is around $2,540, and LFO cannot expire or be discharged in bankruptcy.

Some courts offer community service as an alternative to paying fees. But even this scenario has a catch. Courts can charge a day fee, usually around $5 every time one shows up for community work.

Incarceration Fees

The practice of charging inmates for their own incarceration, including clothing and doctors visits–the so-called “pay-to-stay”–was pioneered in the state of Michigan in 1984. As of now, at least 43 states charge inmates for room and board in jail and prison. Some state prisons charge only those inmates who are on work release or have a prison job, while others deduct money from inmates’ commissary accounts. When talking about jails, most of them operate on a per diem charge. Simply put, it’s a daily cell rental. Each county is free to decide the amount of this charge, with some reaching as high as $60 per day in California, or as low as $1 in Virginia.

Inmates in 35 states are charged for medical expenses while incarcerated. Most states require inmates to pay for every single doctor’s visit, around $5 each. Others, like Texas, charge a $100 yearly fee if a person visits a doctor at least once during that year. Three states–Missouri, Nevada and Michigan–charge their inmates for clothing. Tennessee joined that list in 2013, also charging for blankets, towels, and toilet paper.

Some county jails have been transformed into forms of involuntary hotels. In Fremont, California, inmates are offered more comfortable and rather small amenities for a one-time fee of $45 and an additional $155 per night. Many other states have similar practices.

In many states, released inmates are still liable for fees associated with their incarceration. In Florida and Wisconsin, if a formerly incarcerated person dies, his property can be confiscated for any unpaid debt.

Post-Release Fees

In 44 states, people sentenced to probation or released on parole are required to pay for their own supervision. Costs of probation can go up to $80 per month, and many states require a one-time fee to enter a parole program. Pennsylvania charges $60 to all those who were released on parole.

Costs of probation supervision can go even higher if one requires an electronic monitoring device. All states except Hawaii and the District of Columbia require a rental fee for electronic monitoring devices. In some states, parolees can pay up to $300 a month for their own electronic monitoring supervision.

When a person is convicted of drunk driving, his license is often revoked and he is required to install a vehicle interlock device that contains built-in drug test that a person is required to take in order to start the engine. In both cases there are fees for installment and maintenance of the device and for reinstatement of a license.

Other expenses can include fees for mandatory drug or alcohol treatment, therapy, and drug testing. Mandatory drug testing in drug court can cost between $80 to $100 per month.

Other Fees and Penalties

The overwhelming majority of people released from correctional facilities pay for court and prison-related costs through monthly installments that incur additional costs, including interest, payment plan fees, collection fees, and late fees. In Florida, failure to pay a fee can result in a $300 surcharge, while in California there is a 40 percent surcharge that has to be paid to private collection agencies. Some states go even further, allowing courts to send people back to jail or prison for not being able to pay their fines and fees, and for the failure to appear at court hearings about their debt. Some states, like Missouri, also allow inmates to trade their debt for more jail time, by crediting inmates with $10 per day toward their fines and fees. In addition, in some counties people can lose their license, food stamps, and even be denied the right to vote until all the debt is paid. But, perhaps, the most disturbing practice is when, due to small traffic fees, low-income people end up in debtor jails.

What are the issues with fees and fines?

The primary reason why states increase fees and introduce new ones is their lack of resources. With the War on Drugs, the number of admissions to prisons skyrocketed, forcing states to introduce new fines in order to support their budgets. In Oklahoma, the number of criminal justice fees increased from 23 to 63 since 1992. Since 1996, Florida came up with 20 new fees as well. As a result, there are a myriad of fees that add up to a considerable sum of money, especially for impoverished and unemployed people. Fines and fees are practically charged for anything and everything, including public attorneys, jail cells, court litigation, prison beds, and probation services. Fines and fees are expensive and omnipresent at every step of the justice system.

Discrimination Against the Poor 

Poor people face more difficulties paying their criminal justice bills. The majority are African Americans and Latinos. As these groups are historically marginalized and impoverished, even a relatively small bill could be an immense burden. For that reason, poor people have considerable disadvantages and are discriminated against for simply “being poor.” Some of them may also have mental illness, substance abuse problems, and child support payments to juggle. Adding jail time and debt is a recipe for a failure. Needless to say, poverty isn’t a crime and inability to pay criminal justice fines should never lead to incarceration. But, in America it does, with local jails being transformed into debtors prisons. As many poor people end up in debt and unable to pay steep fines and fees associated with their cases, they are thrown in jail. It’s partly due to aggressive collective practices by local and state courts, administrated through for-profit probation services. Currently, 13 states allow their municipalities to outsource probation to the private sector. As U.S. News & World Report explains:

If an offender is found guilty and can’t pay his or her fine on the spot, he or she is referred to the private probation company, which will usually establish a payment plan and oversee the person until the fine is paid in full. If the person falls behind on their payments, they become subject to having their probation revoked and in some cases could face jail time.

Barriers to Re-Entry & Recidivism

The system of fines and fees is not particularly helping those released from correction facilities. Formerly incarcerated people already face multiple barriers to re-entry into society. It’s extremely hard to find a decent-paying job with a felony conviction as every job application requires disclosure of convictions. If a person can’t find a job and has debt, or worse, is homeless, his life chances diminish considerably. Steep fines and fees perpetuate more crime and poverty, leaving formerly incarcerated people powerless and without any prospects for the future.

Fines and Fees Don’t Save States Money

The current system of fines and fees isn’t saving money or raising revenue for the states because it requires vast resources to maintain and support clerks, attorneys, judges, and probation officers, all those who collect fees and fines from offenders. In the end, prisons spend more money on incarceration than in collected fees, due to the fact that the majority of inmates are poor and unable to pay those fees. Almost a quarter of inmates go to homeless shelters after release and many are unemployed for years. Essentially, the system doesn’t produce the intended results, but delivers unintended negative consequences.


It’s understandable that states are trying to balance budgets through fines and fees, but how far is too far? Criminal justice system fees and fines accumulate into immense debt for the most vulnerable citizens. Poor people are punished for being poor with more fees and jail time, while those who are released from prison face more barriers to re-entry. Courts and prisons are still spending more than they are making. In this scenario, everybody looses.


Oklahoma Watch: Prisoners of Debt: Justice System Imposes Steep Fines, Fees

Time: Welcome to Prison. Will You Be Paying Cash or Credit?

ACLU: Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor

NPR: As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price

Guardian: America Cannot Lock its Poor in Debtor’s Prisons to Fund its Police Departments

U.S. News & World Report: Private Misdemeanor Probation Industry Faces New Scrutiny

Knoxville News Sentimental: Low-Income Criminal Defendants Face Mounting Fees, Even for Public Defenders

Brennan Center for Justice: Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry

Brennan Center for Justice: Tennessee Inmates Must ‘Pay-to-Stay’

Valeriya Metla
Valeriya Metla is a young professional, passionate about international relations, immigration issues, and social and criminal justice. She holds two Bachelor Degrees in regional studies and international criminal justice. Contact Valeriya at



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