The scale of criminal debt in the United States has exploded, with local, state and federal court imposing billions in fines and fees on people in criminal cases. If the person lacks the ability to pay or does not pay the fines, still additional financial penalties can result. Legal consequences of non-payment can in turn result in a person’s loss of a range of other rights, including employment, housing, public assistance, driver’s licenses, and voting rights. The extent of this problem of spiraling criminal debt has been increasingly well-documented and the subject of law and policy reform. This article begins by introducing the problem, through a set of studies in North Carolina, a state that along with many others has expanded the number and inflexibility of criminal fines and fees. First, a study of a novel North Carolina dataset illustrates the scale of such debt, where one in twelve adults in the state owe criminal debt. Much of that debt is concentrated in lower-level traffic and misdemeanor cases. Further, individuals who do not pay court costs or fines within a short time period never do so. Second, a study of driver’s license suspensions illustrates the further impact of those policies: one in seven North Carolina adult drivers have had their licenses indefinitely suspended. Third, surveys of affected individuals further shed light on the broader social impacts of these practices. A wide range of states and the federal government have adopted similar approaches in recent decades, imposing fines and fees in criminal cases without clear regard for ability to pay or the counterproductive impacts of these schemes. In the federal system, criminal fines are often uncollected due to inability to pay. I conclude by addressing law and policy reforms and the constitutional question whether such debt can be imposed on persons who lack ability to pay, and what Equal Protection, Due Process, Keywords: Excessive Fines Clause, and other requirements must be satisfied to constitutionally impose criminal debts.

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