Fines and Forfeitures

State and Local Backgrounders Homepage

Fines and forfeitures are financial penalties imposed for violations of the law.

Fines include moving and parking tickets (including those from traffic cameras), court-imposed fines, and other criminal justice-related charges and penalties. A forfeiture is when the police seize property that is believed to be connected to a crime. (The US Census Bureau excludes library fines, sales of confiscated property, and any penalties relating to tax delinquency from these totals.)

Although fines and forfeitures constitute a small share of the overall revenue in states, cities, and townships, they can disproportionately affect certain communities.

How much revenue do state and local governments raise from fines and forfeitures?

State and local governments collected a combined $14.8 billion in revenue from fines and forfeitures in 2018, which was less than 0.5 percent of state and local general revenue. State governments collected $5.7 billion (0.3 percent of state general revenue) and local governments collected $9.2 billion (0.5 percent of local general revenue). Among local governments, cities and townships collected the most revenue from fines and forfeitures as a share of general revenue (1.0 percent).

Among local governments, cities and townships collect the most revenue from fines and forfeitures. In 2017 (the most recent year data are available), fines and forfeitures provided 1.0 percent of general revenue for cities and townships.

[Note on data: Census publishes data for state governments and local governments (in the aggregate) ever year, but only publishes comprehensive data on counties, cities, townships, school districts, and special districts for fiscal years ending in 2 and 7. (The 2017 data cited on this page were released in 2019). However, Census does publish data for large counties and cities (e.g., fines and forfeiture data for the city of New Orleans) every year. This is why the data years in this backgrounder may vary depending on what is being discussed.]

Which localities are most reliant on revenues from fines and forfeitures?

In general, smaller cities tend to rely more heavily on fines and forfeitures than larger cities. On average, cities with populations under 100,000 raised 2.6 percent of general revenue from fines and forfeitures in 2017; cities with populations over 100,000 collected 1.2 percent.

But these averages can mask huge variation across cities and towns in how heavily they depend on fines and forfeitures. In fact, some localities are almost entirely dependent on these sources of revenue: in 2018, fines and forfeitures accounted for 100 percent of general own-source revenue in Baxter County, Arkansas, and 83 percent in Kenton, Delaware.

There is also variation among larger cities but to a far lesser extent. Among cities with populations greater than 300,000, Arlington, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and New Orleans, Louisiana, stand out as heavily reliant on fines and forfeitures. In each of those jurisdictions in 2018, fines and forfeitures accounted for more than 3 percent of general revenue.

What are the criticisms of fines and forfeitures?

Two major criticisms of fines and forfeitures are that they unfairly burden some residents and communities and they create harmful incentives for criminal justice programs.

Even though fines and forfeitures are a small share of a jurisdiction’s revenue, they can have a devastating effect on lower-income residents, particularly Black and Latinx households. Various studies have shown that the people most often subject to fines and forfeitures are disproportionately low-income and people of color. Further, cities with larger Black populations tend to rely more on fines and court fees to raise revenue. Racial bias, profiling, and stereotyping also contribute to people of color being disproportionately targeted, and this in turn further exacerbates racial disparities.

People who are unable to pay fines or who have their money or property forfeited can also face severe consequences, including having their driver’s license suspended, having their credit score lowered, losing their voting rights, losing jobs or housing, and facing arrest or jail time. This is particularly problematic in part because those most stopped for traffic citations are often those least able to pay.

Fines and forfeitures can also create conflicts of interest for law enforcement agencies. A large share of low-level fines are traffic citations (e.g., speeding and parking tickets). If local governments depend on these citations for funding, law enforcement could be encouraged to issue as many citations and fines as possible. This could lead to public safety resources being misallocated as law enforcement agencies focus on collecting funds rather than on other tasks.

In some jurisdictions, fines and forfeitures directly fund the criminal justice program that collects them (rather than going to the government’s general fund). This creates even more of a corrosive incentive to issue such citations. For example, as of 2011, the police department that seized cash or property related to a crime could keep 100 percent of the value in 26 states. In an additional 16 states, the police department could keep at least 50 percent.

Fines and fees are also an unreliable source of revenue. Most judges are not mandated to hold “ability-to-pay” hearings, meaning they do not consider whether defendants have the means to pay the charge, thereby leading to billions of dollars in uncollected debt. Worse yet, many state and local governments lack sufficient data to assess the efficacy of their court-imposed fines and fees because they do not closely track the costs of ensuring enforcement and compliance, such as those for public defenders, parole and probation officers, and license and revenue agencies.

As a result, case studies have revealed that court-imposed fines and fees are inefficient: some counties are spending up to $1.17 in court hearing and jail costs for every $1 they ultimately collect.

When communities view their courts and police departments as exploitative (what some call “police for profit”), their confidence in the criminal justice system is undermined.

Interactive data tools

State and Local Finance Data: Exploring the Census of Governments

State Fiscal Briefs

Further reading

Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform
Yale Law School (2020)

Fines and Forfeitures and Racial Disparities
Aravind Boddupalli and Sarah Calame (2020)

The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines
Brennan Center for Justice (2019)

Municipal Fines and Fees: A 50-State Survey of State Laws
Institute for Justice (2020)

Ferguson City Finances: Not the New Normal
Tracy Gordon and Sarah Gault (2015)