In jurisdictions across the United States, contact with the criminal justice system routinely incurs a little-known consequence to justice-involved individuals: financial debt. Individuals who are arrested, charged, and subjected to criminal justice sanctions are often assessed a variety of monetary fines, user fees, surcharges, restitution, and other debts by courts and other criminal justice agencies—collectively referred to as legal financial obligations (LFOs).

In one nationally-representative study, two-thirds of prison inmates in 2004 had been assessed monetary sanctions by the courts. Additionally, in nearly half of state correctional systems and more than one-third of county jails nationwide, inmates are charged fees for room and board, in-custody services, and programs in order to offset the cost of their court-imposed incarceration or community supervision (see here and here).

The current state of practices around legal financial obligations falls short of basic standards of fairness and accountability, and little research exists to support the effectiveness of these measures in achieving common criminal justice aims, such as rehabilitation, deterrence, or retribution. Yet LFOs in state and local criminal justice systems have expanded significantly over time—both the number of LFOs that may be imposed across the criminal justice process and the dollar amounts of such obligations. They are also increasingly imposed as a supplement to other penalties such as incarceration or community supervision. Often, these supplementary financial obligations are levied at the discretion of a decision-maker, such as a judge, without a thorough examination of a defendant’s ability to pay. Moreover, in many local jurisdictions they have become a critical source of revenue, incentivizing local officials to assess and enforce them.

These practices have far-reaching negative consequences: For individuals in the system, who are disproportionately low-income, LFO debts can accumulate over time as a result of inability to pay. Additionally, governments and taxpayers bear the cost of collecting these debts and sanctioning those who fail to pay.

To address these issues, in the fall of 2016 the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) awarded grants to California, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, and Washington to reform the way that legal financial obligations are assessed and used in their systems. Specifically, each of these grantees will develop and implement a plan that aims to

  • Promote collaboration and data sharing among criminal justice agencies, and encourage transparency and public accountability in the assessment and collection of LFOs; and
  • Develop tailored alternatives to fines and fees.

ISLG is among a number or organizations that are serving as the national technical assistance provider to all grantees. (Other technical assistance providers include the Center for Court Innovation, the National Association of Counties, and the Center for Family Policy and Practice with support from BJA.) In this role, ISLG is helping grantees examine the scope and practice of legal financial obligations, track the fiscal underpinnings of these policies, and analyze the use of incarceration as a response to non-payment. ISLG is also developing a performance measurement framework that can be used both to track progress in grantee sites and as a model for other sites across the country undertaking reform efforts in this area.

For more information, please contact Rebecca Tublitz at Rebecca.Tublitz@islg.cuny.edu.