Fines in the United States


Fines are financial punishments attached to a conviction for a given offense, and are either specified as a fixed dollar amount or variable range. For example, in Washington State, a first-time drug conviction can result in a $1,000 fine, with each subsequent drug convictions resulting in a $2,000 fine per conviction. The range of possible fines is highly variable for similar offenses across jurisdictions. For example, in Massachusetts, defendants convicted of a felony may be fined $500. In Arkansas, class A and B felonies carry a fine of up to $15,000. Defendants found guilty of murder, attempted murder, or sexual assault in Alaska or of “off-grid” felonies or level 1 drug crimes in Kansas can be fined up to $500,000. Apart from mandatory fines specified by legislatures, judges wield considerable discretion in setting the amount of a sentenced fine. [1]

Fines are financial obligations, forms of criminal justice debt, such as restitution. Fines accrues at sentencing, with accompanying surcharges. For example, in Arizona, individuals face a series of surcharges that add 84 percent to their underlying fines and penalties. In Georgia, community service is generally only an option to offset fines.

In 1970, the Supreme Court ruled in Williams v. Illinois that extending a maximum prison term because a person is too poor to pay fines or court costs violates the right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. And in 1983, the Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that the Fourteenth Amendment bars courts from revoking probation for a failure to pay a fine without first inquiring into a person’s ability to pay and considering whether there are adequate alternatives to imprisonment.

The Supreme Court, in Tate v. Short, holds that courts could not automatically convert an indigent defendant’s unpaid fines into a jail sentence.

Fines in the Juvenile Justice System

In the United States, some youth people (many in poverty), face monetary charges for their involvement in the juvenile justice system. Many times, the inability to pay pushes them deeper into the juvenile justice system and exacerbates the family’s economic distress.

The United States Department of Justice recognized that “the harm caused by unlawful practices [imposing costs without adequate due process] … can be profound. Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape. Furthermore, in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents. [2]

The vast majority of states (43 states) impose fines on youth in the system, a significant number impose such costs on parents when the parent has played some role in the child’s delinquency (For example, Alabama imposes fines on parents if they interfere with the performance of duties by juvenile probation officers, Alabama Code. § 12-15-112, or if contribute to the delinquency, dependency, or need supervision of children. Alabama Code § 12-15-111) , and some impose costs on parents without a separate requirement of parental responsibility. Fines may be imposed only for designated offenses, such as truancy (Arkansas Code Ann. § 9-27-332(a)(7)-(8), for example), established as an alternative to incarceration (Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 46b-141a(b), for example), or available as a general dispositional option (Alabama Code § 12-15-215, for example).

While imposing a fine seems like a logical alternative to removal of young people from their family and community (incarceration or costly services), the problem starts when fines penalize a young person with an economic disadvantage. There is a clear relation between poverty and justice system involvement.

In Arkansas, for example, there is a discretionary fine of up to $500 for truancy. A young person may spent some time in a locked facility if he or she could not afford the truancy fine.

Surveys stated that difficulty paying fines had exacerbated financial hardship, increased court contact resulting in missed school or work, or led to deeper juvenile justice system involvement. [3]

Criminal Justice Fees

Many U.S. states are imposing “user fees” on individuals with criminal convictions. These states are introducing new user fees, raising the dollar amounts of existing fees, and intensifying the collection of fees and other forms of criminal justice debt such as fines and restitution. These fees create new paths to prison for those unable to pay their debts. In fact, the proliferation of “user fees,” financial obligations imposed not for any traditional criminal justice purpose such as punishment, deterrence, or rehabilitation, it is due to the need or desire to fund tight state budgets. Unlike fines, whose purpose is to punish, and restitution, whose purpose is to compensate victims, user fees are explicitly intended to raise revenue. For example, thirteen states charge poor people public defender fees simply for exercising their constitutional right to counsel. California charges extra $300 for failure to pay fines. In Ohio, many courts do not routinely waive fines and costs for indigence.

There is an entry about criminal justice fees here.


In Legislation

Fines in the U.S. Code: Title 18, Part II, Chapter 227, Subchapter C

The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating fines are compiled in the United States Code under Title 18, Part II, Chapter 227, Subchapter C. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Criminal Procedure (including fines) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Sentences of the US Code, including fines) by chapter and subchapter.


In Legislation

Fines in the U.S. Code: Title 18, Part II, Chapter 229, Subchapter B

The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating fines are compiled in the United States Code under Title 18, Part II, Chapter 229, Subchapter B. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Criminal Procedure (including fines) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Sentences of the US Code, including fines) by chapter and subchapter.



  1. Fines and Monetary Sanctions. Alexes Harris.
  2. Letter from United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Office for Access to Justice (Mar. 14, 2016)
  3. Feierman, J., Goldstein, N., Haney-Caron, E., & Fairfax, J. (2016). Debtors’ prison for kids? The high cost of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system. Juvenile Law Center. Philadelphia, PA.

See Also

Further Reading

  • Information about Fines in the Gale Encyclopedia of American Law.
  • Gordon, M. A., & Glaser, D. (1991). The use and effects of financial penalties in municipal courts. Criminology, 29(4), 651–676.
  • Harris, A. (2016). A pound of flesh: Monetary sanctions as punishment for the poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  • Bersani, B. E., & Chapple, C. L. (2007). School failure as an adolescent turning point. Sociological Focus, 40(4), 370–391.
  • Blackmon, D. A. (2009). Slavery by another name: The re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. New York: Anchor Books.
  • O’Malley, P. (2009). The currency of justice: Fines and damages in consumer societies. New York: Routledge-Cavendish.
  • Piquero, A. R., & Jennings, W. G. (2016). Research note: Justice system-imposed financial penalties increase the likelihood of recidivism in a sample of adolescent offenders. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice.
  • U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (2015). Justice Department announces findings of two civil rights investigations in Ferguson, Missouri.
  • Hillsman, S. (1990). Fines and day fines. In M. Tonry & N. Morris (Eds.), Crime and justice: A review of research (Vol. 12, pp. 49–98). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • O’Malley, P. (2009b). Theorizing fines. Punishment & Society, 11(1), 67–83.

Fines: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

Federal Primary Materials

The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Fines. This part provides references, in relation to Fines, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

Federal primary materials about Fines by content types:

Laws and Regulations

US Constitution
Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

Federal Case Law and Court Materials

U.S. Courts of Appeals
United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

Presidential Materials

Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

Executive Materials

Federal Legislative History Materials

Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Fines and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Fines or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

State Administrative Materials and Resources

State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Fines and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Fines. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Fines should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Fines when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

Tools and Forms

Law in Other Regions

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