Cash Register Justice

The Hidden Fines & Fees that Create 21st-Century Debtors’ Prisons in America

A John Jay Media Fellowship Program

Photo by Bill Smith via Flickr

Few Americans are aware that prisons and jails confine thousands of people whose main offense is that they are too poor. Confronted with an accumulation of fees and fines associated with both felony and non-felony convictions as well as unpaid tickets and other civil penalties,  they wind up behind bars in what amounts to a 21st century version of debtors’ prisons.


The large numbers of individuals victimized by what is sometimes called “cash register justice” are among the reasons why jail populations are overflowing in many American communities. And the costs are enormous: Fines and fees imposed by local justice systems around the U.S. drive unemployment, family instability, recidivism and poverty in the most at-risk communities.

Just as problematic: Two-thirds of all prison inmates have criminal justice debts, which complicates their successful reintegration into the community.

The onerous burden of justice fines and fees is often obscured by media and policymakers’ attention to other areas of justice reform. As a result, the dearth of consistent, informed reporting on this issue has helped to keep the costs, and their consequences, hidden to many Americans; and it has created a troubling gap in public understanding of the current state of our justice system.

The Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ) at John Jay College, with the support of Arnold Ventures, formerly known as the Laura and John Arnold Foundation,  is organizing a two-year program of media training workshops for U.S. journalists to help fill that gap.

Fifteen journalists have been selected for the second workshop, scheduled for Sept. 26-27, 2019. For the official press release and description of the program, please click here.

A PDF of the Sept 26-27 program can be downloaded here

The first round of the program, on March 7-8, 2019, brought together 21 journalists with  elected policymakers, researchers and practitioners who have special expertise on the issue, along with individuals who have been impacted, at John Jay College. Their names and affiliations are below. For a list of  Round 1 Fellows and their bios, click here.

Speakers at the first conference included Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center; Marc A. Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the Texas Public Policy foundation; Nusrat Choudhury, deputy director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program; and Anne Stuhldreher, director of financial justice of the City and County of San Francisco. For a list of  Round 1 speakers and their bios, click here.

The program for the March 2019 conference (Round I) is available here.

The Cash Register Justice Fellowship is one of a series of programs aimed at promoting and developing evidence-based reporting on emerging justice issues, organized through year by the CMCJ.


California Weighs Statewide Move to Cut Court Fines and Fees

OK Legislators to Discuss Reform of Court Fines, Fees

22 Counties Defy California Law on Juvenile Fees

New Effort to Eliminate California Court Fines, Fees


Fines & Fees Justice Center

SUBSCRIBE to the Fines & Fees Justice Center here.

Brennan Center Report on Debtor’s Prisons Nov. 21, 2020

Report Calls for an End to Debtors’ Prisons

Addicted to Fines  Governing

Small towns in much of the country are dangerously dependent on punitive fines and fees. Special report by Mike Maciag, Governing magazine, August, 2019

Debtors Prisons for Kids  Juvenile Law Center
Driver’s License Suspensions in the U.S.  (Power Point) Fines and Fees Justice Center
Fines and Fees in the Juvenile Justice System (Powerpoint) Jessica Feierman
High Pain, No Gain: How Juvenile Administrative Fees Harm Low-Income Families in Alameda County, California (2016)  Jeff Selbin, UC Berkeley School of Law/Policy Law Clinic
High Pain, No Gain: How Juvenile Administrative Fees Harm Low-Income Families in Alameda County, California (2016)  Jeff Selbin, UC Berkeley School of Law/Policy Law Clinic
Making Families Pay: The Harmful, Unlawful, and Costly Practice of Charging Juvenile Administrative Fees in California (2017) Jeff Selbin, UC Berkeley School of Law/Policy Law Clinic
Understanding Monetary Sanctions (Powerpoint) Alexes Harris, University of Washington


All photos by David Greenwald unless otherwise noted


ROUND TWO:SEPT 26-27 2019

Unconstitutional Application of Cash Bail Makes St. Louis ‘Less Safe’

by Tony Messenger/St. Louis Post Dispatch

Unconstitutional Use of Cash Bail Makes Cities Less Safe: Conservative Group


Shake Down’ Culture of US Courts Hits Poorest Americans: Judge

By TCR Staff Sept. 30, 2019

‘Shake Down’ Culture of U.S. Courts Hits Poorest Americans: Judge

Local Resistance, Corporate Profits Fuel America’s Debtor’s Prisons

TCR Sept. 27, 2019

Local Resistance, Corporate Profits Fuel America’s ‘Debtors’ Prisons,’ Conference Told


ROUND ONE: MARCH 6-7, 2019

Court Fines, Fees Trap Poor People for Life

by David Greenwald/Davis Vanguard

Court Fines and Fees Are Literally Trapping Poor People in the System for Life

“Driven to Debt”

March 7, 2019  by Nancy Bilyeau/TCR

Driven to Debt: How Traffic Fines ‘Punish Americans for Their Poverty’

Can Local Governments Stop Relying on ‘Cash Register Justice’?

Roman Gressier/TCR/March 8, 2019

Can Local Governments Stop Relying on ‘Cash Register Justice’?


Income-Based Fines Could Reduce Justice Debts for Poor: Study

Who Profits From Pay-for-Treatment Diversion?


Jesse Bogan/St. Louis Post Dispatch

Lawyer Lands in  Jail for Trespassing  May 10, 2019

Alex Burness/Colorado Independent

Colorado Could Limit Jail Time for Poor Defendants  March 14, 2019

Colorado was Set to Repeal Death Penalty This year. What Went Wrong?  April 2, 2019

Cassie Chew/ABA Journal

In Illinois, Innocence Comes with a $35K Bill

David Greenwald /Davis Vanguard

California Bill Would Restrict Ability to Collect Court Administrative Fees May 7, 2019

Bill By Senator Mitchell Would Restrict Ability to Collect Court Administrative Fees

Nadege Green, WLRN

Nov. 21, 2019

Study: May Not be Cost Efficient for States Like Florida to Suspend Licenses for Unpaid Fines

Sept. 6, 2019

Can’t Pay Court Fees? In Florida, You Could Lose Your Driver’s License

NPR Market Place

Many States Still Suspend Driver’s Licenses for Unpaid Fines Not Related to Driving , Sept. 25, 2019

Kala Kachmar, Asbury Park (NJ) Press

Ticket-Fixing Judge Could Be Disbarred  March 14, 2019

Meghan Keneally, ABC

Oct 25 2019

‘It’s Not America’: 11 Million Lose Driver’s License Over Unpaid Fines

Kira Lerner, The Appeal

June 26, 2019

The ‘Poverty Trap’: How For-Profit Pretrial Services Drive Americans into Debt

Michelle Liu, Mississippi Today

Meridian Will No Longer Throw People in Jail for Unpaid Fines April 3, 2019

Meaghan McDermott, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle

April 27, 2019

New York Would Let You Pay Traffic Tickets on Installment

Can’t Pay That Traffic Fine? Try an Installment Plan

June 17, 2019

Penalizing Poverty: In Upstate NY, Driver’s License Suspensions Unravel Lives

Marsha Mcleod/Investigative Post

The Cost of Suspending Driver’s Licenses 5-21-19

(Mcleod was an observer at the conference)

Juliette Rihl/PublicSource

Feb. 25, 2020

Pennsylvania Mulls Driver Amnesty for ‘Catch 22’ Traffic Fine Trap

Feb 13, 2020

The True Cost of Justice Debt: How a $25 Traffic Fine Can Cost $150

Feb 6, 2020

$206 or Jail: A 15-Year-Old Traffic Fine Leads to a Painful Choice

Matt Sledge/The Advocate

Does a 540K Escrow Account Solve New Orleans’ Court Fee Problem? Advocates aren’t buying it.  Nov. 12, 2019

New Orleans Judges: Legislature, Not City Hall is Venue for Changing Rules on Court Costs Nov 13, 2019

New Orleans Tussle Over Court Fees Offers Little Relief to Poor Defendants

New Orleans Magistrate Rolls Over Defendants’ Rights 3-19-19

After Months in Jail, Homeless Man Pleads Guilty  4-3-19

Jailed 80 Days, Homeless Man Sparks Furor Over New Orleans Bail Practices

Andy Stiny/Albuquerque Journal

Study says Court Fines, Fees Overused in Santa Fe County  Dec 6, 2019

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg  The Appeal

The Push to End Punishment Fever Against People With HIV  April 11, 2019

Overdose in an Arizona Prison?  Prepare to Pay Up  May 3, 2019

Overdose in an Arizona Prison? Expect a Bill

Izabela Zaluska, Wisconsin Watch

Sept. 15, 2019

Paying to Stay in Jail: Hidden Fees Turn Inmates into Debtors