Fines and Fees

More than $50 billion in debt is currently being held by approximately 10 million people because of their involvement in the criminal justice system. Much of this debt is because low-income people simply do not have the money to pay fines and fees.

While "debtors' prisons" are technically outlawed, courts and police departments have used loopholes within the law to place people in jail for the nonpayment of fines and fees. The practice, which targets the most vulnerable communities, plays an integral role in wealth and income inequality, and contributes to the growing racial wealth gap in our country. But, researchers around the country have shown that fees can be limited and debt collection practices can be managed in a way that does not prey on low-income communities.

We partner with advocates to push policymakers to limit the use of fines and fees that directly contribute to burdensome debt, create barriers to housing and employment, and result in imprisonment and recidivism.

To shed light on this issue, PolicyLink produced the brief, Ending the Debt Trap: Strategies to Stop the Abuse of Court-Imposed Fines and Fees, which lifts up promising strategies being implemented across the country to ensure that judicial fines and fees do not contribute to burdensome debt for low-income communities and people of color. The brief looks at how the use of fines and fees has expanded over time, the impact of these practices, and the inefficiency of these policies as a budget tool for local governments.


PolicyLink serves as a steering committee member on Debt Free Justice California -- a multiregional, California-based coalition working to reform criminal fines and fees through the state.

For years, we've advocated for an end to criminal fines and fees, which strip wealth from low-income communities and communities of color. Debt Free Justice California brings together community organizations, advocates, government partners, and impacted people from across the state to eliminate high pain, low gain administrative fees charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. The reforms build on legislation passed earlier this year in San Francisco, and similar legislation that is currently advancing in Alameda County.

To learn more about the coalition and join the fight for criminal fines and fees reform in California, please visit, and follow Debt Free Justice California on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.