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One of the largest institutional creditors in the United States is perhaps the most unexpected: the criminal court system. Each year, creditor courts collect more than $15 billion in revenues from criminal defendants. These fees are the lifeblood of the modern criminal legal system.

In this Article, we shed new light on the legal and economic framework under which myriad stakeholders operate in these creditor courts. By analyzing new survey data from clerks of court and 102 contracts with debt collection agencies in Florida, we provide general insights how creditor courts distort incentives and teem with conflicts of interest. These inefficiencies regularly disrupt the financial stability of the judiciary as well as the lives of the largely indigent criminal defendants who remain indebted to this system.

As we show, legislators, clerks of court, and the judiciary writ large subject criminal defendants to unconstrained coercion through the use of so-called “user fees.” Leveraging campaign finance data and publicly available litigation material, we also find suggestive evidence of possible quid pro quo rewards between collection agencies assigned to collect debt on behalf of courts and the clerks of court tasked with administering them. We argue that state constitutional reforms that eliminate creditor courts and mandate courts be funded from general state revenues are the only meaningful ways to permanently redress the social costs generated by criminal monetary sanctions.

Publication Citation

Ohio State Law Journal, forthcoming.