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Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Comprehensive Project for Reform is a collaboration of the Criminal Justice Policy Program and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). It focuses on the fees and fines imposed by criminal justice system. Excessive financial obligations, as well as improper practices for imposing and enforcing court debt, can have extremely harmful consequences for individuals, families, and communities. Often it is poor people and people of color that are disproportionately impacted. Reliance on criminal justice debt to fund important government functions also distorts the operation of the legal system.

This initiative aims to equip advocates approaching these issues from many vantage points to meet the urgent challenges posed by criminal justice debt. The project consists of three parts:


Increasingly, people who interact with the criminal justice system come away with significant, sometimes crippling debts. The persistence of these debts can deepen exposure to the criminal justice system, impede successful reentry, and cause spiraling harms for individuals, their families, and their communities. Indeed, the drive to raise revenue through fines and fees has in many ways monetized the relationship between the justice system and the people it is supposed to serve.  These harms fall disproportionately on poor people and people of color. Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: The Urgent Need for Reform provides an overview of this collaborative initiative, which aims to equip criminal justice advocates and civil justice advocates—including those who work on issues of consumer rights, civil rights, and poverty law—to work together to meet the challenges posed by criminal justice debt. This initiative provides tools for advocates around the nation to seize this moment of reform. Click here to read.


NCLC has developed a Guide for Litigation to assist those who represent clients in criminal justice debt matters. The guide identifies a range of potential tools based in constitutional, criminal, and consumer protection law that attorneys may use in protecting clients from the harms of criminal justice debt practices. The categories of representation addressed include:

  • Defending against imposition of criminal justice debt;
  • Defending against collection of criminal justice debt, including defending against sanctions or incarceration for nonpayment and seeking remission of debts;
  • Seeking discharge of criminal justice debts through bankruptcy;
  • Protecting assets, wages, and benefits from involuntary collection of criminal justice debts; and
  • Asserting affirmative claims and counterclaims relating to criminal justice debts.

Additionally the Guide for Litigation includes checklists of key factual and legal issues for attorneys to consider when representing clients in criminal justice debt matters, and analysis of the underlying constitutional principles that animate much of the law in this area. Click here to read.


CJPP has developed a Guide for Policy Reform, which highlights the different areas of law that spawn harmful practices and outlines a wide array of policy levers for bringing about systemic reform.  The guide provides a detailed discussion of policy strategies for (1) addressing conflicts of interest that arise when legal actors rely on revenue generated through court debt; (2) identifying and eliminating practices that act as poverty traps or poverty penalties; (3) structuring ability-to-pay determinations to protect individuals from being punished for non-payment of financial obligations they cannot afford; and (4) ensuring transparency and accountability throughout the system.  For each area, the Guide for Policy Reform provides an overview of the issue as well as reform strategies that might be implemented through legislation, court rules, or executive action. Click here to read.

Download the Publication

Click the link below to download the CJPP report, "Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: Guide for Policy Reform," released on September 8, 2016.

Download Report