Fines: A Ticket Back to Jail

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Statistics show that many people who have been incarcerated return to prison, often because of an inability to pay fees and fines associated with criminal offenses. As Sarah van Gelder reported in a February 2018 YES! Magazine article, research from the Columbia University Justice Lab found a 50% increase in people on probation returning to jail due to financial non-compliance. The people caught up in the criminal justice system are likely to be low-income and cannot afford fines after being released, placing them in a vicious cycle of recidivism. As Alexes Harris reported in a 2016 study, the average fee for a felony conviction is $1,300. To pay these fees, individuals must find steady jobs from employers who are willing to employ them despite their criminal record. If unable to find satisfactory employment, ex-convicts may turn to illegal activities resulting in recidivism. In some states, the inability to pay a fine is a parole- or probation violation, which can result in an arrest warrant, again reinstating the cycle of imprisonment.

Mainstream media have neglected to cover the conditions of mass incarceration and post-prison monetary payments in detail. Media coverage has not shared the percentage of incarcerated citizens, and the connection to financial security, in any comprehensive way.  Van Gelder discusses Van Jones, founder of #cut50, a “bipartisan effort to reform criminal justice,” which challenges the system in which an overwhelming number of people are on parole and probation without a guarantee of rehabilitation. For individuals who are unable to pay off a debt, the rate of recidivism is high. Rehabilitation is nearly impossible when the fees are so high that bearing their financial burden is nearly impossible. The institutions in place are not contributing to lowering incarceration rates, and instead, have increased the likelihood for previously convicted individuals to re-offend. To support the upward-mobility of incarcerated people, these excessive fines and fees should be reconsidered so that the intentions of imprisonment move away from financial obligation and towards rehabilitation.

Source: Sarah van Gelder, “Yes, Lots of People Go to Jail Because They Can’t Pay a Fine,” YES! Magazine, February 2, 2018,

Student Researchers: Natalie Hill, Blair Maclin, and Kristen Maher (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)