States and municipalities are increasingly relying on fines and fees imposed on defendants by criminal courts to fund their court systems and other government operations. Rather than relying on taxes, state and local governments have opted to extract wealth from their poorest and most vulnerable citizens in the form of “criminal legal debt”—financial sanctions imposed as part of the criminal legal system.
These types of penalties are inherently regressive—that is, they have a greater impact on those who are poorer as compared to those who are richer. And such a financial sanction would be difficult for many Americans to bear. A 2020 report issued by the Federal Reserve found that nearly 40 percent of adults would be unable to immediately cover an unexpected $400 expense.