Every year, thousands of Pennsylvanians are jailed, have their probation revoked or extended, or lose their driver’s licenses simply because they are too poor to pay the fines and costs arising out of criminal cases, including for minor summary offenses such as speeding or disorderly conduct. In some counties, the courts have become debt-collection agencies and the jails have been transformed into modern debtors’ prisons.
Under decades of Pennsylvania and United States Supreme Court decisions, courts cannot punish defendants for failure to pay without first holding a hearing and determining that the defendant has the ability to pay but is willfully refusing to do so. Unfortunately, a lack of clear standards has allowed some Pennsylvania courts to collect fines and costs without following the law. The resources on this page are intended to provide defendants, attorneys, and judges with the information necessary to ensure that these financial obligations are imposed and collected in a way that complies with the law without punishing individuals because of their poverty. 

Do you owe fines and costs?

If you owe fines, costs, or restitution to a magisterial district court or a court of common pleas and do not pay on time, you may be at risk of being arrested. If you cannot afford your payments, you can ask the court to lower them. And if you have missed your payments and are threatened with jail, you have the right to a free lawyer before the court can jail you. Look at the self-help resources listed below for more information.

If you have followed the guides below and still cannot afford your payments or have been threatened with jail, please file a complaint with our legal department.

Self-Help Guides for Unrepresented Defendants

Legal Guides and Template Motions for Lawyers, Defendants, and Judges

Determining “Ability to Pay”


ARD and Diversion Programs

Probation and Parole Revocation

Contempt Proceedings

Waiving Costs After Sentencing

Magisterial District Courts

Juvenile Fines, Costs, and Restitution

Payment Plans and Collections Procedures

Other Motions and Memoranda

Model Collections Resources for Courts and Court Staff

Based on forms from ACLU settlements in other states, such as Biloxi, Mississippi, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has created model documents grounded in Pennsylvania law for courts to use at hearings to determine why a defendant has failed to pay court fines, costs, or restitution. 

Proposed Reforms

Both the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania’s Criminal Procedural Rules Committee and the legislature are considering reforming the way that courts impose and collect court fines and costs. Visit our webpage here for more information.

ACLU of Pennsylvania Litigation

The ACLU has been litigating these unconstitutional practices to protect individuals’ rights and provide much-needed guidance to trial courts. Visit our webpage here for more information.

Research on Pennsylvania Court Debt

The ACLU has begun to research Pennsylvania court debt. Visit our webpage here for more information.