Across the country, millions of people are subject to onerous fines and fees stemming from minor infractions, most of which target low-income people and people of color. These fines and fees result in severe consequences for not only the individuals fined but also their families, communities, and other taxpayers. For those who cannot pay immediately, fines and fees often spiral into new and additional charges, arrest warrants, and—as in Brown’s case—even incarceration. Contrary to constitutional protections that outlawed “debtors’ prisons,” an individual’s experience with the criminal legal system still depends in large part on how much money they have. The resulting harm—escalating debt, lost employment and housing, and an enduring cycle of poverty—is long-lasting and has negative individual and societal impacts.
The impacts of fines and fees are reflected in our health, both on an individual and societal level. Indirectly, fines and fees result in a cascade of negative consequences, including the inability to meet basic needs—e.g., shelter, employment, food, health care—leading to poor health. Directly, fines and fees cause undue stress, contributing to poor physical and mental health in individuals. Collectively, the policies and practices governing fines and fees across the United States are contributing to persistent health disparities among low-income communities of color. A coordinated response is necessary to address the negative health effects of fines and fees. It is imperative that state and local governments sufficiently fund their court systems, and that the judicial system adhere to the dictates set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the imposition of fines and fees.