Key Facts

A growing number of government programs levy fines and fees on their residents, partly to generate revenue to balance public budgets. There is often an insidious unintended impact of this practice---to sentence people to poverty. These fines and fees can knock people down so hard they can’t get back up.  Poor people and people of color are usually hit the hardest. These pernicious practices can strip wealth and resources from vulnerable communities. Financial penalties can make government a driver of inequality, not an equalizer.


Click on a key fact to view details:

Defendants are charged for a long list of government services that were once free — including ones that are constitutionally required. A state-by-state survey conducted by NPR found that:

  • In at least 43 states and the District of Columbia, defendants can be billed for a public defender.
  • In at least 41 states, inmates can be charged room and board for jail and prison stays.
  • In at least 44 states, offenders can get billed for their own probation and parole supervision.
  • And in all states except Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, there's a fee for the electronic monitoring devices defendants and offenders are ordered to wear.
  • Impoverished people sometimes go to jail when they fall behind paying these fees.
  • In over half of states, people who owe Legal Financial Obligations to the courts can have their ability to vote taken away.


Also, according to the NPR investigative series, Guilty and Charged:

These fees — which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars — get charged at every step of the system, from the courtroom, to jail, to probation. Defendants and offenders pay for their own arrest warrants, their court-ordered drug and alcohol-abuse treatment and to have their DNA samples collected. They are billed when courts need to modernize their computers. In Washington state, for example, they even get charged a fee for a jury trial — with a 12-person jury costing $250, twice the fee for a six-person jury.

  • Of 15 states with largest prison populations, all have a practice of arresting people because they were unable to pay fines, fees, debts, or because they did not attend hearings about these debts, according to (The Poor Get Prison, Page 11)
  • In 1991, 25 percent of inmates reported owing court-imposed costs, restitution, fines, and fees. By 2004, that number increased to 66 percent. Currently, it is estimated that 80 to 85 percent of inmates leave prison with this debt. (The Poor Get Prison, Page 10)
  • In California, uncollected court-ordered debt for traffic and criminal offenses add up to an estimated $10.2 billion, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office.
  • In California, 56 of 58 counties charge parents a nightly fee for every night their son or daughter spends locked up in Juvenile Halls. These fees vary wildly throughout the counties and are levied on some of the most vulnerable families in our state.
  • Two thirds of people incarcerated in jails throughout California have not yet been convicted or crimes. They are simply there awaiting trial because they cannot pay bail. The cost of bail in California averages $50,000—five times the national average.
  • Without a driver’s license, it’s hard to get a job. One study found that having a driver’s license was more important for finding steady work than a high school diploma. 
  • According to The Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights, these drivers license suspensions “make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. They harm credit ratings. They raise public safety concerns. Ultimately they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”
  • A recent survey found that 63 percent of Americans have no emergency savings and could not come up with $500 if they had to.
  • One in four African-American children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen.
  • One in two African-American women have a loved one who is incarcerated.
  • Nationwide, one-third of African-American men in their twenties are under correctional supervision. African-American men are over six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, and Latino men are 2.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
  • Half of all African-American males are arrested by the age 23. One in four African-American children born in 1990 had an imprisoned father by the time he or she turned fourteen. And one in two African-American women have a loved one who is incarcerated.

In San Francisco, African-Americans make up less than 6 percent of the population, but:

A coalition called Debt Free SF has been sounding the alarm about how fines and tickets hit vulnerable San Franciscans hard:

On towing costs:

  • The cost of being towed in San Francisco has nearly tripled over the last five years, to $491.25, driven by a 432 percent increase in the administrative fees the Municipal Transportation Agency charges
  • The cost of getting towed in San Francisco is two to three times higher than nearly every other city in the country including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles

On tickets for homeless people:

  • Citations for anti-homeless offenses have increased threefold since 2011:
  • Between October 2006 and March 2014, the SF Police issued over 50,000 citations for “quality of life” crimes, of which over 22,000 were for homeless people who were sleeping, sitting, or begging.
  • 90 percent of homeless surveyed said they were unable to pay the fine for their last citation. In San Francisco, this results in a $300 civil assessment fee being added to the base fine, an arrest warrant, and a suspension of one’s driver’s license, according to the Coalition on Homelessness.