Legal financial obligations serve a range of practical and ideological functions within the modern American criminal justice system. Criminal fines are punitive in nature and intended to reflect the severity of the offense as well as having a deterrent component. When assessed in conjunction with other financial penalties, including fees and restitution, the collective economic burden of these sanctions can be significant. An increasingly robust body of literature highlights the unequal impact and collateral harms of these punishments, especially those for people who fall into different socioeconomic groupings. There is a danger that the well-deserved opprobrium directed at fees and the cumulative effect of legal financial obligations will mask some benefits of properly targeted and calibrated fines. Here, we explore an opportunity for reform in the United States inspired by two Nordic sentencing policy models for fines. First, we look to Norwegian penal policy to consider expanding the use of fines as the primary sanction for a wider range of criminal offenses, especially in lieu of short terms of incarceration. We temper the impact of this change, especially for indigent defendants, by considering the implementation of a means-adjusted “day fine” system which are prevalent in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, and other individualized adjustments as in Norway. Taken together, these policies could reduce the American over-reliance on incarceration while modifying punitive fiscal sanctions in a manner that meets the purposes of punishment and seeks to minimize the unintended harms of financial punishment.

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