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How Do Prisoners Pay Their Fines?

Fines are monetary penalties imposed on convicted defendants as part of their criminal sentence. For prisoners, unpaid fines can result in extended incarceration or other penalties after release. This article explores how prisoners can pay fines while incarcerated and after release.

Ways Prisoners Can Pay Fines During Incarceration

Prisoners have limited options for paying fines while still incarcerated. Here are some of the main methods available:

Using Personal Funds

Prisoners may choose to pay fines from any personal funds they have available. This could include:

  • Money they had when arrested
  • Funds added to their commissary account by friends/family
  • Wages earned through prison jobs

However, most prisoners have very little money to their names and cannot fully pay fines this way.

Diverting Commissary Funds

In some states, a portion of a prisoner’s commissary account funds can be automatically deducted to pay outstanding fines:

  • Up to 50% in some states
  • Deductions made per court order
  • Prisoners may request suspension of deductions if funds needed for necessities

While not ideal, this option does allow for fines to be paid gradually from commissary accounts.

Making Payments from Outside Accounts

Prisoners may be able to arrange payments from accounts outside the prison system:

  • Requires coordination with probation department and/or court
  • Payments can be automatically deducted from bank accounts
  • Allows finer control over payment amounts/schedule
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This is dependent on having outside accounts with sufficient funds.

Participating in Work Release Programs

For prisoners nearing the end of their sentence, work release programs allow them to take an outside job and make payments from their earnings.

  • Available in minimum security prisons
  • Prisoners return to facility at night
  • Allows prisoners to start saving for release

Work release enables prisoners to begin paying larger amounts as their release approaches.

Using Tax Refunds

In some cases, prisoners may be able to use tax refunds from filing returns to pay outstanding fines.

  • Refunds can be automatically diverted by IRS/state tax agencies
  • Only applicable for prisoners with filed tax returns

Diverting refunds allows fines to be paid in a lump sum directly from the refund amount.

Petitioning for Reduced Fines

Prisoners can request their fines be lowered by petitioning the court:

  • Requires showing financial hardship
  • Fines may be lowered but usually not eliminated
  • Allows for affordable payment plan

If granted, reduced fines enable payments over time that fit within a prisoner’s limited means.

Options for Paying Fines After Release

Once released from prison, former inmates have several options for handling unpaid fines:

Arranging a Payment Plan

  • Must be approved by court
  • Allows spreading payments over 6-12 months
  • Failure to pay can result in penalties

Payment plans allow former prisoners to pay gradually while resuming their lives.

Requesting Community Service

  • Converts fines to community service hours
  • E.g. 15 hours for each $100 owed
  • Provides way to work off fines for unemployed

Community service offers an alternative solution for those unable to pay.

Seeking Help from Reentry Programs

  • Many programs assist with legal financial issues
  • Can help negotiate payment plans
  • May provide some financial assistance

Reentry programs try to ease the transition back to society.

Using Civil Legal Aid Resources

  • Legal aid clinics provide pro bono assistance
  • Can help file petitions for reduced fines
  • Assist with navigating court procedures

Civil legal aid ensures access to legal help for those unable to afford it.

Holding Fundraisers or Seeking Donations

  • Crowdfunding sites make raising money easier
  • Allows community participation in repayment
  • Donors may match funds raised

Fundraisers enable those without means to collectively pay fines.

Using Tax Refunds

  • As with incarcerated filers, refunds can pay fines
  • Some even waive interest/fees if refund covers amount
  • Fastest way to settle fines for filers getting refunds

Refunds can fully or partially settle fines if amounts allow it.

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Filing for Bankruptcy

  • Civil judgment for unpaid fines makes them dischargeable
  • Bankruptcy eliminates/reduces amount owed
  • Long-term impact on credit score

Bankruptcy provides option to escape overwhelming fine debts.

Consequences for Unpaid Fines After Release

If former prisoners do not address unpaid fines, they may face serious consequences:

Drivers License Suspension

  • States can suspend licenses for unsatisfied fines
  • Greatly limits employment options
  • Reinstatement may require payment in full

Suspended licenses create barriers to jobs, earnings, and payments.

Civil Judgments

  • Unpaid fines become civil judgments
  • Allows government to pursue collection
  • Can garnish wages, seize assets

Judgments make repayment mandatory through forced collections.

Probation/Parole Violations

  • Failure to pay becomes a probation/parole violation
  • Can extend supervision period or mandate more check-ins
  • In severe cases, can lead to re-incarceration

Violations result in stricter supervision and fewer freedoms.

Damaged Credit Histories

  • Unpaid fines are reported on credit histories
  • Greatly lowers credit scores
  • Makes accessing housing, employment, loans difficult

Poor credit due to unpaid fines limits opportunities essential to reintegration.

Decreased Eligibility for Government Aid

  • Many government benefits restricted for those with unpaid fines
  • Examples include TANF, food stamps, public housing
  • Creates additional difficulties and expenses

Loss of aid when it’s most needed can set back progress.

Key Takeaways

  • Paying fines during incarceration is very challenging
  • More options open up following release from prison
  • Unpaid fines can trap former prisoners in cycles of poverty and punishment
  • Addressing fines promptly should be a priority for anyone with court debt

Navigating fine payments requires awareness of options available at each stage of the criminal justice process. Unpaid amounts should be dealt with quickly to avoid long-lasting harm to a former prisoner’s livelihood and options for success after serving their sentence.

Frequently Asked Questions About Prisoners Paying Fines

Can family members pay a prisoner’s fines?

Yes, family members can pay toward a prisoner’s fines by arranging payments with the court or probation department. They may also add funds to the prisoner’s commissary account designated for fines.

What happens if a prisoner is released with unpaid fines?

If a prisoner still owes fines at release, the amount is converted to a civil judgment. This allows the government to pursue repayment using wage garnishment, asset seizure, and other collection methods.

Are churches or non-profits able to pay fines for prisoners?

Yes, some churches and non-profit groups specifically raise funds to help prisoners pay legal fines. These donations can legally be used to settle court-ordered amounts.

Can fines be deducted gradually over time from prison wages?

Some state prison systems can garnish a portion (up to 50%) of wages earned by prisoners in work programs to help repay fines gradually over time.

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What should you do first if released with unpaid fines?

The first step would be to contact the court or probation department overseeing repayment and attempt to set up an affordable payment plan. This demonstrates good faith and allows you to gradually repay amounts from earnings.

Can outstanding fines prevent you from getting federal benefits?

Yes, owing criminal fines can potentially impact eligibility for many federal and state assistance programs. Benefits like TANF, Medicaid, public housing, and food stamps may be restricted.

Is it possible to get traffic tickets converted to community service if you can’t pay?

Many courts will allow traffic fines and fees to be commuted to community service hours instead of payments for those facing financial hardship. Each ticket worked off reduces the amount owed.

Can I negotiate for lower fines before entering a plea deal?

Yes, working with your criminal defense attorney to negotiate lower fines is often an option during plea bargain negotiations. The goal is agreeing to an amount you’ll be able to repay.

Where should I go for help with legal issues related to unpaid fines?

The best resources are civil legal aid clinics that provide pro bono assistance to those facing financial hardship. Public defender agencies may also be able to point you to low-cost legal help regarding fines.


For incarcerated individuals as well as former prisoners, coming up with money to pay fines, fees, and restitution is an enormous challenge. The limited options available make paying court debt difficult at all stages of the criminal justice process. However, promptly addressing unpaid amounts wherever possible is absolutely vital for avoiding further hardships that create barriers to reintegrating after release.

With persistence and by utilizing every option available, satisfying fines is possible in most cases. But systemic issues in the legal system mean coming up with money is much harder for the disadvantaged groups most likely to end up incarcerated and owing fines. Reform is greatly needed so that court-imposed debts do not trap former prisoners in endless cycles of poverty and punishment. Offering flexible, realistic payment plans and ending many common fines would be a good start.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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