1 in 3 Americans Directly Impacted by Legal Fees & Fines

At least 17 million families with children sacrifice essentials due to court debt

The United States’ overreliance on legal fees and fines is directly impacting one in three American families, according to a new survey just released from the Fines and Fees Justice Center and the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law.

The new report exposes a stark reality: for millions of working families, money needed for necessities, such as food, housing, healthcare and transportation, is being redirected to pay off court debt. At least 17 million families with children sacrifice on essentials due to court debt.

“The United States has put a high price on justice and that price is being felt by millions of Americans. These consequences are not limited by income, jurisdiction or geography – it’s happening nationwide,” said Tim Curry, Policy & Research Director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “Left unchecked, this will only further degrade the economic stability of working families.”

Fines are imposed by courts as a form of punishment for a range of infractions, the most common being traffic violations. State and local governments then tack on add to fill budget holes left when they refuse to fund government directly and equitably.

“Some may think of court fines and fees as an inconvenience or a deserved punishment for infractions, but we found that they produce a variety of significant hardships. In fact, more than half the people we surveyed experienced difficulty paying for an essential need such as housing, food, or childcare as a result of fines or fees,” said Kevin Dahaghi, post-doctoral fellow with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, who worked on the survey.

graph showing 98% of people said court debt impacted their daily lives, 99% of parents stated they had to cut back on an essential need, and 35% of people said they had trouble accessing food.
  • Over a quarter (27%) reported housing hardship, with two-thirds falling behind on rent and mortgage payments and over a third (34%) having to move to different accommodations.
  • Over a third (35%) faced challenges in food security.
  • Nearly 20% faced negative consequences to their employment, including being unable to work, lacking transportation to or from work, and having to seek additional work or work extra hours.
  • Healthcare worsened for 14% of respondents, with half being unable to afford medication and nearly half (47%) being unable to see a doctor.
  • Over a third (32%) reported negative impacts to transportation, the most common being the loss of a driver’s license as a result of being unable to pay their debt.

“This survey demonstrates not just the breadth but also the depth of the harms caused by fines and fees.” Said Angie Weis Gammell, Policy Director at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law.

“We must work toward a system that doesn’t fund government services in ways that bring financial hardship to working class and low-income individuals and families.”

“If you want proof that this is, at the end of the day, all about raising money, look at how quickly the financial consequences of court debt can multiply and persist. An unexpected traffic ticket can shatter a family’s budget. If they can’t immediately pay, they are continually punished until they make good,” said Curry.

When someone cannot immediately pay, further punitive measures are often taken, many aimed at raising more money, that not only make it increasingly difficult to pay off debt but jeopardize overall financial stability and have long-term negative impacts on their lives. Measures include levying additional fees, drivers license suspension, issuing warrants, arrest and even jail.

Read and download the full report here.