PHILADELPHIA — Today, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and two experts in criminal justice and statistics from Temple and Rutgers Universities released a report examining the imposition and collection of fines, costs, and restitution, and how these financial impositions impact Pennsylvanians of different means. 

The report's findings focus on comparisons between people represented by public defenders versus those with private counsel, a proxy for relative financial means. Most notably, those who were represented by a public defender are generally unable to pay off their financial impositions, even after a decade has passed since sentencing. Defendants with private counsel, by contrast, have largely paid their debt within five years.  

“This report, for the first time, puts hard numbers to what we have consistently seen in dozens of cases we have litigated over the past four years: courts are disproportionately punishing the poorest Pennsylvanians by imposing fines and costs that are well beyond their means,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We have a two-tiered system of justice in this state, where those with means easily pay fines and costs, while those who require a public defender struggle to do so for years and even decades. This report is a condemnation of the status quo of trying to raise revenue off the backs of those involved in the criminal justice system and who are least able to afford it.”

Other findings of note include that public defender clients are normally charged about $1,342 in fines, costs, and restitution at the time of sentencing. The largest chunk — more than $1,000 — is in court costs, an amount that has increased over the past decade. 

“Criminal justice debt can linger for many years, which is especially the case for indigent defendants who do not have the same means to pay,” said Dr. Jeffrey Ward, associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University. “For indigent defendants in particular, the burden of criminal justice debt can far outlast the sentence.

“We’ve seen across the country an increased emphasis on criminal court fees and costs, which turns into debt for many people,” said Dr. Nathan Link, assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University-Camden. “When that happens, it can bring about a range of negative consequences from driver’s license suspensions to warrants, complicating people’s efforts to reintegrate and even increasing the scale of their debt.”

This is the first empirical analysis of the fines, costs, and restitution imposed and collected by Pennsylvania courts in criminal cases. It addresses only the courts of common pleas, including Philadelphia Municipal Court, and more than $4.7 billion in assessments. 

You can read the report here.