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Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for Action

NCJ Number
Roopal Patel; Meghna Philip
Date Published
38 pages
This report proposes five core recommendations for successful advocacy against modern-day manifestations of debtors' prisons that involve incarceration solely for not paying criminal justice fees or fines.
First, conduct an impact analysis of proposed and existing criminal justice fees. Such studies can show legislators that the imposition and enforcement of fees and fines carry both financial and social costs while failing to generate revenue. Second, create and enforce exemptions for indigence. The most effective ways to break the cycle of debt and poverty that criminal justice debt perpetuates is to create exemptions for indigent people and effectively enforce them. Third, eliminate unnecessary interest, late fees, and collateral consequences. When exemptions from fees and fines are not possible, other policies can reduce the burden of debt. Collateral punishments, such as suspending driver's licenses, only makes it more difficult for people to obtain the employment necessary for making payments. Fourth, end incarceration and supervision as punishment for the non-willful failure to pay fees and fines. Maintaining punitive criminal justice intervention for non-payers of fees and fines who have been assessed as posing no threat to public safety keeps them enmeshed in the debilitating environment of the criminal justice system. In addition, they have no right to counsel. Such practices raise constitutional issues, are costly to States, and divert criminal justice resources from the management of serious offenders. Fifth, focus on rehabilitation through meaningful workforce development. Offering optional community service as a means of paying criminal justice debt has the potential to improve the long-term job prospects for participants. This provides a less costly alternative to collecting debt while improving prospects for preventing recidivism. Samples and examples of promising programs and policies are provided. 135 notes