Spotlight: Fines and Fees

We at the Lab want to make sure that we are taking on research projects that address the needs of the access to justice field. So, occasionally we’ll post about some pressing A2J issues for which we think more rigorous research is really needed. We welcome your ideas on our thoughts below, of course. For many of these topics, we will be looking for field partners who may have an ideal site for such research. We may also be looking for other researchers with whom we might partner to conduct a study on the topic. If you’re interested in partnering with us on any of these spotlight topics, please let us know.

Last month, Jeff Sessions retracted an Obama-era Justice Department letter that encouraged courts to be wary of the impact of fines and fees on low-income populations. The Obama-era letter brings attention to concerns about the imposition of such monetary penalties, discussing real-world consequences that disproportionately impact poor defendants. These concerns are as follows: the widespread practice of requiring monetary payments for infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies typically does not involve an inquiry into the defendant’s income or ability to pay. Instead, the penalties are based solely on offense type. Such fixed payments are more punitive for poor than the wealthier defendants, as the same fine will present an increasingly larger burden as one moves lower on the income scale. For more information, see this response from Lisa Foster, former director of the Justice Department’s Office for Access to Justice, Access to Justice Lab Advisory Board member, and co-author of the original letter.

Specific examples of such monetary penalties help bring the reality of this into focus[1]:

  • Fine for a misdemeanor is typically about $1,000.
  • Application fee a defendant must pay to hire a public defender can be as high as $400
  • Jail booking fees range from $10-$100
  • Defendants can be made to pay fees upward of $200 for juries who hear their cases
  • Victims’ panel classes, where some defendants are mandated to hear about victims’ experiences and loss, can cost up to $75
  • Drug courts can and often do make people pay for their own assessment, treatment, and frequent drug testing.

For state-by-state information on fines and fees, see the results of a 2014 survey conducted by NPR, NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, and the National Center for State Courts.

The stakes are high for the individuals in the system, the communities the justice system is meant to protect, and the financial survival of the court system itself. On the latter point, fines and fees can have significant revenue-generating capacity for resource-constrained court budgets. So, how do we structure a system to rehabilitate offenders, decrease recidivism, improve public safety, and stabilize criminal justice budgets? How do we balance all of these priorities, especially in a context in which we don’t actually know what the short and long-term outcomes are of these practices or their alternatives?

It may come as no surprise to our readers that we think that some rigorous research is needed in this arena. We need to know what, exactly, the consequences are to low-income individuals of these fines and fees. We need to know if alternative fee structures–perhaps set based at least in part on a person’s financial status–can effectively reduce recidivism and protect communities. We need to evaluate and understand alternative models, too. As noted in this recent New York Times op-ed, other scholars think the same.

The key is going to be ensuring that policymakers have the research they need to make informed changes. Are you administering a fines and fees-related program that you’d like to evaluate? Contact us to see if it might be a good candidate for a study.

[1] These statistics are replicated from a recent New York Times article, available here:



  1. Claudia Johnson


    You should reach out to DA’s and PDs–at the county level to start that conversation. These practices are mostly local–not statewide, so you need to work at the county/judge/elected Clerk level–if you want to run experiments. The bottom line is, if you are poor–no fine or prison are good for the person–they can come back to their life and keep working and being there for their family. Fees and fine have nothing to do with public safety, or any of the other concerns you state. Fees and fines are the way the local counties finance their pension and court costs–they are local costs to cover local court costs. Nothing to do with recidivism, rehabilitation, or anything else. Its all about tax policy–the states and counties not funding the courts at the proper level–and instead the local counties making the difference on the back of poor people who are dragged into court for whatever reason and whatever outcome (even when charges are dropped). The racial difference of the application of fees and fines–and the economic impact of those raced based practices would be a good research project. Take counties like Fergusson and see the long term costs of these systems in communities of color and what the erosion of trust in the court system cost in the long term. But that is not a controlled experiment.

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