Evans, Douglas N. (2014). The Debt Penalty – Exposing the Financial Barriers to Offender Reintegration. New York, NY: Research & Evaluation Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.
Financial debt associated with legal system involvement is a pressing issue that affects the criminal justice system, offenders, and taxpayers. Mere contact with the criminal justice system often results in fees and fines that increase with progression through the system. Criminal justice fines and fees punish offenders and are designed to generate revenue for legal systems that are operating on limited budgets. However, fines and fees often fail to accomplish this second goal because many offenders are too poor to pay them. To compound their financial struggles, offenders may be subject to other financial obligations, such as child support payments and restitution requirements. If they do not pay their financial obligations, they may be subject to late fees and interest requirements, all of which accumulate into massive debt over time. Even if they want to pay, offenders have limited prospects for meaningful employment and face wage disparities resulting from their criminal history, which makes it even more difficult to pay off their debt.
An inability to pay off financial debt increases the possibility that offenders will commit new offenses and return to the criminal justice system. Some courts re-incarcerate offenders simply because they are unable to settle their financial obligations. Imposing financial obligations and monetary penalties on offenders – a group that is overwhelmingly indigent – is not tenable. States often expend more resources attempting to recoup outstanding debt from offenders than they are able to collect from those who pay. This report explores the causes and effects of perpetual criminal debt and offers solutions for encouraging ex-offender payment.
This report was prepared as part of the R&E Center’s partnership with Justice Fellowship. The mission of Justice Fellowship is to reform the criminal justice system so communities are safer, victims are respected, and offenders are transformed. Justice Fellowship operated as an independent organization until 2001, when it became a department within Prison Fellowship Ministries.