The Costs and Consequences of Legal Debt: A Field Experiment

December 4, 2017
Professor Devah Pager stands with bookshelf and window in background

In their new study, professors Devah Pager and Bruce Western and graduate students Helen Ho and Becca Goldstein examine the long-term consequences of legal debt for social, economic, and criminal justice outcomes. A great deal of recent scholarly and public attention has been focused on the problem of legal debt: the accumulation of fees and fines associated with traffic stops, violations, and other forms of criminal justice involvement. Individuals can be charged for invoking their right to a public defender; they can be charged for the costs of their jailing or community supervision; they can be charged for drug testing, crime lab analysis, electronic monitoring, and court fees. Equally important, if an individual fails to pay these fees in short order, they can be charged significant interest and collections fees over time. In some cases, failure to pay (or the associated failure to appear in court when payment is due) can result in a warrant for arrest and jail time. While many states offer provisions to modify fees and fines based on ability to pay, judges have often proven unwilling or unable to extend such accommodation. As a result, the poor, disproportionately exposed to criminal justice contact, bear a disproportionate burden of legal debt.