Fines and Fees Are a Barrier to Criminal Record Expungement, New CAP Issue Brief Concludes

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Center for American Progress

Release Date

Tuesday, November 30, 2021


Washington, D.C. — Removing fines and fees and their harmful consequences is key to addressing the barriers to clearing a criminal record. This is the main conclusion of a new issue brief released today by the Center for American Progress in partnership with the Berkley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, which also confirms that the justice system must work at all levels to end hyper-criminalization and mass incarceration, remove the collateral consequences of having a criminal record, and invest robustly in essential community services.

One in 3 people in the United States has a criminal record. These individuals are subject to more than 44,000 legal sanctions and collateral consequences that create barriers to housing, job access, education, nutrition assistance, and many other necessary resources. This also fuels systemic inequalities and cycles of poverty and hardship, as practices of the criminal legal system disproportionately affect people of color, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.

Jurisdictions can take several steps to prevent criminalization and reduce harm to people who already have a record, as well as the millions of families and communities affected by these policies. Eliminating the financial barriers imposed by fines and fees would help system-impacted individuals clear their records and reenter society.

The issue brief’s key recommendations include:

  • Reduce or eliminate fines imposed as punishment: There is no evidence that such fines improve public safety, yet they trap millions of people in debt.
  • Abolish fees that are imposed only to generate revenue: Such fees harm individuals and families and drive people deeper into both the criminal legal system and poverty. Moreover, they have been shown to keep police from solving serious crimes and often generate little to no net revenue because the cost of collections is so high.
  • Reform restitution to prioritize redressing harm rather than furthering cycles of hurt, poverty, and criminalization: This effort should involve reducing or eliminating restitution interest as well as eliminating restitution to government institutions and corporations.
  • Require public reporting of fines and fees data: This publicly accessible information would aid in transparency around how much criminal justice debt is held by people in the United States.
  • Automate criminal record-clearing through clean slate laws: Such actions would automatically clear certain misdemeanors and felony records, without the burden of a court-petition process or monetary requirements, after a set period of time.
  • Decouple sealing and expungement eligibility from court debt: This would allow for expungement regardless of outstanding fines, fees, and restitution, as long as the individuals have met other legal criteria.
  • Remove other barriers to criminal record-clearing: These barriers include expungement fees, fingerprinting requirements, mandatory or discretionary hearings without substantial notice, and complicated filing procedures such as in-person filing requirements or paid online filing.

“People with criminal records endure tremendous hurdles and challenges to successfully reenter society, and the fines and fees that come with trying to clear those records are an additional one,” said Akua Amaning, associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the issue brief. “States and localities must recognize the harms that stem from the use of monetary sanctions and work toward comprehensive measures that aim to remove the collateral consequences of criminal records, eliminate or reduce the use of court fines and fees, and support transparency and awareness of the negative effects that monetary sanctions can have on system-impacted communities.”

Read the issue brief: “Fines and Fees Are a Barrier to Criminal Record-Clearing

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For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, please contact Claudia Montecinos at


The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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