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Shackled to Debt: Criminal Justice Financial Obligations and the Barriers to Reentry They Create

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2017
26 pages

This paper - one in a series from the Harvard Kennedy School's Executive Session on Community Corrections - describes trends in the assessment of criminal justice financial obligations (CJFOs) placed on offenders, discusses the historical context within which these trends have unfolded, reflects on their unintended consequences, and considers alternative models for the effective and fair deployment of CIFOs.


There are at least five types of CIFOs: fines, forfeiture of property, costs, fees, and restitution. According to Harris and colleagues (2010: 1758), "monetary sanctions were integral to systems of criminal justice, debt bondage, and racial domination in the American South for decades." Although their use waned significantly in the first half of the 20th century, CJFOs have proliferated since the 1980s as a result of statutes and policies at every jurisdictional level. The proliferation of CJFOs in this period was likely due to a cultural shift toward retribution for criminal behavior and the commitment to holding accountable those who engage in it. CIFOs not only burden offenders, whose income-producing capabilities are typically low and further undermined by their involvement with the criminal justice system, it also adds debt collection to law enforcement responsibilities. Overall, burdensome CJFOs undermine community corrections' efforts to assist offenders and ex-offenders in building independent and law-abiding lives. This paper proposes two sets of reforms. The first set addresses the use of CJFOs for low-income or poor people. Six recommendations address this reform area. The second reform set addresses the criminal justice system's growing reliance on CJFOs to fund its operations and maintenance. Two proposals address this need for reform. 23 notes and 92 references

Date Published: January 1, 2017