Amnesty for Court-Ordered Debt in the U.S.

Awarded Scholars:
Karin D. Martin, University of Washington
Project Date:
Oct 2020
Award Amount:

Criminal justice debt arises from an inability to pay the fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution incurred from contact with the criminal justice system. Because many states have hundreds of millions of dollars of unpaid court-ordered debt, jurisdictions around the country are enacting amnesty programs. While few amnesty programs were enacted prior to 2015, more than four dozen have been established since 2017. Yet, little research has examined their impacts on those whose debt is waived or reduced. Crime policy scholar Karin Martin will examine the consequences of a one-day amnesty program that reduced or waived the unpaid criminal justice debt of about 850 people in Pierce County, Washington, in September 2019. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) will provide data for three courts—Municipal (traffic), District (misdemeanor), and Superior (felony) courts— for disposition in the cases heard that day and whether the debt was reduced or waived entirely. The AOC can also provide data on the original debt amount and the final debt amount. Martin will address these questions: 1) How many of the 850 people had their debt waived entirely? How much debt was waived on average and in total? 2) How many had their debt reduced? How much debt was reduced on average and in total? 3) What is the likelihood of criminal justice system involvement (arrest, jail stay, conviction, or monetary sanctions) in the subsequent 6 or 12 months after participation in this amnesty program? 4)What is the likelihood of housing insecurity (eviction, accessing housing assistance) in the subsequent 6 or 12 months after participation in this program?


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