Over the past several decades, bankruptcy gave tens of millions of Americans a fresh start free from crushing debt. Although criminal justice debt weighs disproportionately upon those with the least ability to pay, it has generally been excluded from bankruptcy’s fresh start. This exclusion has been grounded on the belief that allowing discharge of monetary sanctions would interfere unduly with important government interests in public safety, deterrence of crime, and rehabilitation.
The bankruptcy dischargeability exception for criminal justice debt encompasses a wide range of monetary sanctions. These include fines and penalties imposed by statute as punishment for an offense. The exception also excludes from discharge many fees and surcharges intended to finance government operations. In recent decades, revenue collection has increasingly become the driving force behind monetary sanctions imposed in criminal cases. At the same time, the severity of sanctions routinely imposed has increased dramatically. Today, the magnitude of a sanction often bears no relation to the harm or injury caused by the offense.