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Why You Should Pay Special Attention to Criminal Justice Debt

In most states, not paying criminal justice debts can result in your imprisonment. Outstanding criminal justice debt can lead to your arrest on debt-related warrants and your detention in jail while awaiting a hearing to explain the reasons you did not pay. Your payment also may be a condition of your sentence or probation, and your probation may in some cases be extended until the debt is paid. Some “clean slate” programs that expunge criminal records require participants to have fully paid off their fines and fees.

If you have outstanding criminal justice debt, you may be required to appear at regular court review hearings, which can disrupt your other obligations. In many states, the government can also seize money from your tax refunds, bank accounts, wages, and public benefits, and even seize your property. Government agencies can also hire debt collectors, which may report your debt to credit bureaus. In some states, your unpaid debt can lead to loss of your driver’s license or professional license.

Unpaid criminal justice debt also can get larger over time, due to interest, penalties for late payment or non-payment, or other collection costs that may accrue from the date of judgment or missed payment. In some states, interest may even accrue when you are in prison or jail.

For these reasons, pay close attention to criminal justice debt. Both governments and private companies have the unique ability—beyond what is available to most other creditors—to enforce collection of criminal justice debt through the criminal legal system. These are high priority debts, which should be prioritized ahead of credit card, medical, and many other debts.

Carefully read any mail from courts or government agencies. Show up to court appointments. Contact the court as soon as you can if you can’t make a date. If going to court interferes with a job or otherwise is a hardship, ask about ways to make reports or payments to the court online or over the phone rather than in person. If you cannot pay criminal justice debts, explain to the court or government agency why you cannot pay, and ask about options for cancelling or reducing the debt. If you can, talk to an attorney about ways to cancel or reduce your criminal justice debt.

The Risks of Using a Bail Bondsman. If you cannot pay your bail, a bail bondsman may pay your bail, and charge you a premium of around 10% of the bail. You permanently lose this 10% even if you show up in court and even if you win the case. You also agree that you and anyone who guarantees your bail must repay the bondsman if you fail to appear and the bail is forfeited.

If the bail is forfeited, you or your guarantors who put up property as collateral for the loan may lose that property if the amount is not paid immediately. Bail bond companies have also been known to use harsh and deceptive collection tactics to get people to pay. The bail bond company, without a legal basis to do so, may threaten to send arrestees back to jail. The company may unlawfully try to force bail bond cosigners to turn over property that was used as collateral in cases where the arrestee complied with the terms of the bail. The company may unlawfully threaten or apprehend individuals in order to coerce them to make premium payments. Bail bondsmen may seek to collect undisclosed or illegal fees and may engage in deception about the terms of the bail agreement and your legal options. Do not always believe what a bail bondsman tells you, and talk about your bail situation with your lawyer, if you have one.