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Criminal Court Fees, Earnings, and Expenditures: A Multi-State RD Analysis of Survey and Administrative Data

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Working Paper Number CES-23-06


Millions of people in the United States face fines and fees in the criminal court system each year, totaling over $27 billion in overall criminal debt to-date. In this study, we leverage five distinct natural experiments in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin using regression discontinuity designs to evaluate the causal impact of such financial sanctions and user fees. We consider a range of long-term outcomes including employment, recidivism, household expenditures, and other self-reported measures of well-being, which we measure through a combination of administrative records on earnings and employment, the Criminal Justice Administrative Records System, and household surveys. We find consistent evidence across the range of natural experiments and subgroup analyses of precise null effects on the population, ruling out long-run impacts larger than +/-3.6% on total earnings and +/-4.7% on total recidivism. Failure to find changes in outcomes undermines popular narratives of poverty traps arising from criminal debt but argues against the use of fines and fees as a source of local revenue and as a crime control tool.


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