May 12, 2021 — Report

A primer for advocates and policy makers


The use of the criminal justice system to collect fines, fees, restitution, and other types of criminal justice debt has been condemned as punitive, self-defeating, discriminatory, and, in some cases, unconstitutional. Would use of the existing civil justice system be a viable alternative?

The criminal justice system’s collection machinery varies from state to state, but typically involves monitoring and coercion of payment through actors such as judges, court clerks, probation officers, and law enforcement officers. The hallmark of criminal enforcement is actual or threatened punishment for nonpayment—frequently through use of arrest warrants, jailing, revocation or extension of probation or other court supervision, and suspension of driver’s licenses. Nonpayment also has severe collateral consequences, such as restrictions on criminal record clearing, occupational licenses, and the right to vote. These punishments unfairly enmesh those who cannot afford to pay further in the criminal justice system and add to the financial burden of their debt, including by leading to assessment of more fees and fines and by making it more difficult to maintain or secure employment. Incarceration, the most severe punishment for nonpayment, devastates individuals burdened by debt along with their families and communities. Low-income communities of color suffer in particular; these communities are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of revenue-generating minor crimes and infractions and racial wealth and income disparities make fines and fees particularly unaffordable.