Research / BFI Working PaperOct 23, 2023

Laffer’s Day in Court: The Revenue Effects of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines

Samuel Norris, Evan K. Rose

Many jurisdictions levy sizable fines and fees (legal financial obligations, or LFOs) on criminal defendants. Proponents argue LFOs are a “tax on crime” that funds courts and provides deterrence; opponents argue they do neither. We examine the fiscal implications of lowering LFOs. Incentives to default generate a “Laffer” curve with revenue eventually decreasing in LFOs. Using detailed administrative data, however, we find few defendants demonstrably on the right-hand side of the curve. Those who are tend to be poor, Black, and charged with felonies. As a result, decreasing LFOs for the average defendant would come at substantial cost to governments.

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