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Costs of Criminal Justice: Paying Legal Financial Obligations

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on July 12, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It costs a lot to run a criminal justice system that accuses, investigates, prosecutes, and incarcerates people. Increasingly, jurisdictions are passing on the costs of the system to those caught up in it.

This is meant to help localities pay for criminal justice, but the result is that poor people especially are finding it very difficult to escape the clutches of the system, sometimes long after they have done the time for their crimes. Let's look at Legal Financial Obligations (LFOs) and their impact as reported by the Atlantic.

Money Is Tight

LFOs are heavy fines and court fees that must be paid or will result in more sanctions and incarceration. Fines are imposed for various costs of prosecution and incarceration, including bench-warrant fees, filing-clerks fees, court-appointed attorney fees, crime-lab analysis fees, DNA-database fees, jury fees, and jailing. Some states are even charging fines unrelated to an actual sentence.

The Arizona legislature reportedly created a "felony surcharge" added onto former prisoners' bills in 1994 to cover costs of the system. The legislature raises the surcharge amount regularly and by 2012 it had reached 83 percent. Thus, a former prisoner who owes $1,000 in fines and fees, pays an additional $830 to the state. That's a fine on a fine that also accrues interest. Making these financial demands from people released from jail and prison, whose employment opportunities are very limited already and who are struggling financially to survive, results in them staying stuck in the system as interest accrues on fines they will be unlikely to ever pay off.

A Pound of Flesh

Alexes Harris, the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions for the Poor, says that Legal Financial Obligations can result in thousands of dollars worth of fines that accrue interest. These monetary obligations, Harris writes, "reinforce poverty, destabilize community reentry, and relegate impoverished debtors to a lifetime of punishment because their poverty leaves them unable to fulfill expectations of accountability."

Willful Failure to Pay

In 44 states in the nation, failure to pay fines, if it is willful, will result in more jail or prison time. Theoretically, no one can be imprisoned for their poverty then if they are not willfully failing to pay what they can't afford. But not all judges take the same approach to the willfulness assessment. Ultimately, poor people often go to jail for failure to pay fines, thus losing any footing that may have been gained in society since their release from the system.

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