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Sentenced to a Life of Criminal Debt

A Barrier to Reentry and Climbing Out of Poverty

By Rebecca D. Vallas & Roopal Patel

States are increasingly raising revenue for their court and criminal justice systems through court costs, fines, restitution, bail forfeitures, and jail and public defender fees charged to persons accused or convicted of crimes, regardless of their ability to pay. This criminal debt, also known as “legal financial obligations” or “monetary sanctions,” can total hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. It hurts an ex-offender’s chances of successful reentry or rehabilitation by hampering access to criminal-record expungement, pardon, public benefits, housing, employment, credit, and a driver’s license. Local advocates around the country are building coalitions with public defender programs and other stakeholders to fight the burden of criminal debt and to raise awareness of the often-hidden damage it can cause.

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