Criminal Justice

What It's Like To Be in Debt to the State

Inside the lives of five people who have served their time, but are still paying for their crimes


Joanna Andreasson

What if you committed a crime, got caught, and served time? Most people would say you had paid your debt to society. But for certain drug, property, and violent crimes, incarceration is frequently accompanied by a fine—with the first payment typically due right after you walk out of prison.

In Florida, for instance, an individual caught selling just seven grams of oxycodone (the equivalent of roughly 14 five-milligram Percocet pills) can receive a three-year mandatory minimum prison sentence and a $50,000 fine. Fifty five-milligram Percocet pills—less than a month's prescription in some cases—will set you back 15 years and an extraordinary $500,000.

Legal financial obligations, which include fines, court user fees, restitution, and collection charges, exist in every state, in Washington, D.C., and at the federal level. These fines and fees were built into state and federal laws for a variety of reasons: sometimes to serve as a deterrent, sometimes to provide compensation for victims, and sometimes purely because someone thought incarceration wasn't punishment enough. According to sociologist Alexes Harris, author of A Pound of Flesh (Russell Sage Foundation), legal debts are also imposed on people "to help reimburse the state for costs resulting from their criminal behavior, including the costs of arresting, prosecuting, and punishing them." That's right: individuals are sometimes forced to pay the state for nabbing them and locking them up.

Jurisdictions across the United States typically base monetary sanctions on offense type—either set by statutes or through judicial discretion—and do not take a defendant's ability to pay into consideration; the same $10,000 fine could be a slap on the wrist for a rich man, but a harsh sentence for a poor one.

In many states, legal debtors are also charged for the privilege of making payments on what they owe. In Virginia, state law requires individuals to pay a $100 fee to initiate a payment plan, as well as a 6 percent annual fee. In Texas, individuals are charged a 4 percent credit card convenience fee on each payment they make. These numbers might seem small, but they can add up over time—especially for people who are barely holding on.

When a person misses a payment, many states tack on additional sanctions—monetary or otherwise. Some charge late fees. Others, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, suspend driver's licenses. In 44 states and D.C., judges may order jail or prison time for individuals with unpaid debts.

People newly released from prison already have bleak employment prospects. It's challenging enough for someone with minimal skills to find work. Imagine how much more difficult it becomes when you have a felony record, a 10- to 20-year gap in employment, and no place to live—and you know you'll have to return a significant portion of what you manage to earn to the state, probably for the rest of your life. The most recent survey data show more than half of the formerly incarcerated remain unemployed for up to a year after their release. Roughly 40 percent return to prison within three years.

For many folks caught up in the criminal justice system, especially those who are poor or who have spent years or decades in prison, coming up with the money to pay off their legal debt can be an insurmountable task—a life sentence.

What follows are edited excerpts from reporting in Alexes Harris' A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor (Russell Sage Foundation).

Kathie owed over $20,000. That figure started at $11,000, but after accruing interest and additional fees for years, the total had nearly doubled. The 49-year-old was disabled and living with her three children, her ex-husband, and her father-in-law in a three-bedroom apartment. Although she was employed, her job did not bring in enough to pay her debts—let alone to afford her own housing:

"Oh my God, I'm going to get emotional…I really feel like it's time for me to move on. I'm going to be 50 years old next year, it's just time for me to have my own life again. And the financial obligations are, I mean it's something I think about every single day. I mean, there's not a day that goes by that I don't think, 'OK, what can I do today to try and figure this out?' And then there are days that I do everything in my powerOK, it's there, but I have other things to focus on today."

Scott owed $100 but only had $35 on hand at the time of his hearing. He was accompanied by his employer, who ultimately agreed to make up the difference—for self-serving reasons:

Clerk: You were supposed to pay $100. You were in for sentencing. You were released from the jail and told to pay $100. Do you have $65 more?

Scott: No.

Clerk: You will have to wait for the judge.

Employer: What happens if he doesn't pay the $65?

Clerk: He could go to jail. Do you have a credit card with $65?

Scott: No, it's all I got.

Employer: Will the judge give me time to scrounge around for more money?

Clerk: No.

Employer: So I have to go to the ATM right now?

Clerk: Yes.

[Scott and his employer leave and return later with a payment receipt.]

Clerk: Are you related?

Employer: No, I have a vested interest. As of today I own him. He is one of my mechanics.

Steve was convicted of a victimless crime, but he was charged a "victim penalty assessment" anyway:

"I feel like, my crime was, like, you know, selling. I was selling crack. So, I didn't reallyI wasn't stealing money. So I still don't understand how that fit together. So, and then I think sometimesand for myself it wasn't really a high amount, but I've seen amounts that are just, like, ridiculous, and where a person, they'll probably never pay it off, and I just don't think that's fair, to hold it over a person's head for the rest of their life, you know?"

Mike, a legal debtor, fretted that the system encourages people like him to return to crime when they get out of prison:

"I understand you have to pay your way, and the court has to pay its way, and they got to collect off somebody. But it seems to me like the way our criminal justice system works, you know, there's too many people making money out of corrections, and the corrections isn't correcting anything. It's more creating people who are unable to get jobs, who are unable to deal in society…So they work outside the block, and those kinds of things that they do, which are illegal, it just kind of compounds it."

In order to be released from James County jail, Patricia was told she had to commit to paying a monthly fee, something she knew she would not be able to do:

"[The clerk is] saying, 'OK, you can't pay $25, you have no income at all.' 'That's right, I have no income whatsoeverdon't have any income.' And yet I'm not going to be released until I sign that paper and set myself up for a violation [by] saying I'll pay $25 a month. 'I can't'…'Well, there's no way you can get?'…Yeah, OK, if I whore myself on the corner, I can get it…

NEXT: Airbnb Sues To Defend Itself from City Regulations; Santa Monica Latest Target

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  1. These people are just silly. Just take out a loan in the name of an unborn child, pocket a third yourself and tell the state to collect if from the kid once he matures. It’s a perfectly legit plan and will teach that kid the lesson of being born in this here spot.

    1. Also known as social security.

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  2. If intentional conspiracy wasn’t so far beyond the government’s ability, I’d wonder if this wasnt about keeping people who have proven their willingness to break the rules under their collective thumb. In reality rules like this come from venal self interest and some scumbag trying to convince the lowest common denominator to vote for them. they just happen to have some unfortunate externalities.

    1. The venal self interest OF some scumbag. Sorry.

    2. These are marginalized people. There’s no real political constituency willing to push against the fleecing.

      1. Yes, it seems that the word “marginalized” is severely overused these days to talk about women or people of color or other “victim classes.” But they aren’t marginalized at all. They have giant voting blocs, well funded advocacy groups, PACs, etc.

        Nobody wants to go to bat for former “criminals”. That is what it truly means to be marginalized.

  3. Hey, if you don’t want to literally pay for your mistakes forever, you should not have made a mistake. It’s that simple.

  4. Hey, if you’d rather not get butt-fucked all day every day by some Government Almighty somewhere, get born in some paradise somewhere, where there ain’t no butt-fucking Governments Almighty! THAT’S really how “simple” it is! Not a clue here, from Yours Truly, on how on can actually implement this plan…

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  7. I really like the SJW bit about the poor people and the rich paying a fine. Nice to see Huffpo ‘writers’ publiching here.

  8. What if you committed a crime, got caught, and served time? Most people would say you had paid your debt to society. But for certain drug, property, and violent crimes, incarceration is frequently accompanied by a fine?with the first payment typically due right after you walk out of prison.

    There go all those regulatory penalties, punishable by x years and/or $250,000 fine.

  9. Fourteen 5mg tabs equals seven grams? Somebody skipped that day the class learned about the metric system.

    14 x 5mg = 70mg, or about 1/100th of 7 grams.

    IOW, if the penalty is for selling 7 grams, that’s 1,400 pills — a bit different than 14.

    1. That’s the weight or a percocet, not the weight of just the oxycodone.

    2. They go by the weight of the tablet, not the active ingredient.

      1. Just like when they bust people for growing marijuana, they weigh the pot, soil, water, fertilizer, and everything else. Then assign it a cash value as if it was all dried flowers. So then next time you hear of someone being busted for growing tens of thousands of dollars worth of weed, that it could be just one five gallon bucket full of soil with a single non-flowering plant in it.

    3. It’s the weight of the pill itself, not the specific pain reliever.

      1. I’m surprised they don’t include the weight of the delivery vehicle: the car.

        1. Shhhhh, they might hear you.

        2. Don’t give them any ideas.

          1. It might be time to start back up my 1980s-era skateboard drug delivery business.

            1. I deliver in the nude so as not to be weighed down even by fabric.

        3. Or at least the prescription bottle.

  10. As a glibertarian, I don’t always know what the answer is. Obviously, I accept that there are too many laws, too many regulations, and it’s too easy to run afoul of said laws and regulations. But absence an anarchy (which I’m willing to try, BTW), there are externalities to your behavior. If your behavior negatively impacts others in your community, (barring a libertarian vision where we all wear togas), you’re going to incur some fines. If you can’t pay the fine, there has to be some other remediation. Community service– something that creates an enforcement mechanism.

    1. Well, for one thing, even in mere Glibertopia, there will be far fewer barriers to entry for ex-cons to earn a living after they serve their sentence. In fact, there might not even be a “sentence”, per se, because who wants to pay for someone to sit around unproductively? Restitution is far more likely a sentence, which means that it’s in everyone’s best interest for the criminal to have productive opportunities.

      1. Well, that’s over in this country. Now you have 18 year olds whose lives have been ruined forever over sexting a 17 year old classmate. That person will never have an opportunity to live a normal life. And a vast majority of Americans see nothing wrong with that.

        1. Sure, we don’t live in anything even vaguely approaching even Glibertopia.

        2. The vast majority of Americans don’t know this is an issue. Even if they did, they wouldn’t be motivated to do anything about it.

      2. They used to make them make gravel out of big rocks or print license plates, and then someone said that was cruel and unusual punishment…

        1. I’m pretty sure prison work crews and prison jobs are still a thing.

    2. I think fines are preferable to long prison sentences.

      But not when said fines are so ridiculously large that most people can’t pay them. Fines should not be about funding the state.

      1. Right, but there’s evidence that even small fines can trip up someone who’s poor or unemployed. Plus, and this is where things get real politically incorrect real fast, sometimes a new cell phone or cigarettes are more important than paying a $30 fine.

        I remember a local case where a lower-income woman had racked up thousands in parking tickets– because she just didn’t give a fuck where she parked. (note low-income woman had a woking car). Her fines got so large, she couldn’t pay them, she cried the fines were “racist” and had them all dropped because no one at the city wanted to be racist.

        This of course had nothing to do with the drug war, but just simple parking violations. I don’t know what the answer is. Sure, we could go full libertarian and remove the concept of parking violations, but I’m guessing parking violations are going to be with us for the near term.

    3. I think a lot of prison could be replaced by fines and restitution, and that would be OK.

      The screwed up part is expecting people who have been in prison, maybe for years, to start paying immediately. For people who commit actual crimes that should be punished, yeah they might deserve it. But you have to be a little practical. Can’t get blood from a stone.

  11. What if you committed a crime, got caught, and served time? Most people would say you had paid your debt to society

    Man, that is sooo like 1970s.

  12. It’s not just ex cons, the PRcalifornia is threatening my license to drive due to my late payments on an old ticket, I asked how I was supposed to work with no license they said,” tough shit go to jail,” see how that works?

    1. Monetary penalties when ti comes to traffic violations has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with making money for Leviathan.

    2. I like the states where they take your license if you get behind on child support. “It should really help this person’s kids if we make sure he is unemployed.” But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  13. RE: What It’s Like To Be in Debt to the State: New at Reason

    I’m sure glad the American colonialists got their independence from England. This way there is no more debtors prison.
    Oh, wait…

    1. Debtors prisons were fairly common in the US until the mid 19th century.

      1. Zeb,

        Right you are.
        I sure am glad they haven’t made a comeback.

        1. Child support is one area where a person can be imprisoned for non-payment of a private debt.

          (sure, you’re technically paying a debt to the government who is in turn supporting your ex-spouse, but everyone knows it’s just a forced transfer payment.)

  14. Wow – that’s almost as high as the fine I pay for working full time for 5 years…

  15. I got the shitty end of this stick when I was 18/19 over an underaged drinking thing. Because I wouldn’t rat out the person over 21 who bought the booze, I was charged with distributing alcohol to a minor, even though I was under 21 myself. This stupid kid I didn’t even hang out with, but was a friend of a friend, got too drunk, went home wasted, and puked his guts out. His doting mother, who was a nurse, FREAKED THE FUCK OUT and he ended up being rushed to the hospital etc. Long story short I got nailed with like 14K+ in fines/restitution, which was mostly medical bills for no reason.

    I was 18 when it happened, and 19 when I was convicted. HOLY FUCK. This is just a kid who happened to show up and hang out with me and several other people who were drinking. We drank at 2 different spots, but somehow my name was the only one that came up, and one of the spots was my place. Of course he didn’t NEED to rat anybody out. Just like I didn’t rat out my buddy who bought our booze. But he did because he was a little Nancy boy.

    1. Luckily I am not a dead beat degenerate and paid it all off over a couple years. They of course suspended by license, community service on top of the cash, probation etc. Big pain in the ass. If I had been some weak ass loser that seriously could have fucked me up for a long ass time. I didn’t do the college thing either, and I imagine if I had tried I would have had a bitch of a time getting in anywhere because of that stupid event too.

      I can only imagine someone who is a little less bright and hard working than myself literally having their whole life derailed by something equally stupid. A lot of people can barely hang on with NO major fuck ups, so something half that bad could sink a good percentage of the population for many years.

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