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The Failed Promise of Installment Fines

In the 1970s, the Supreme Court prohibited the then-common practice of incarcerating criminal defendants because they lacked the money to immediately pay off their fines and fees. The Court suggested that states could instead put defendants on installment payment plans. As this Article shows, this suggestion came against a backdrop of impressive success stories about installment fines—including earlier experiments in which selected defendants had reliably paid off modest fines through carefully calibrated payment plans. Yet as this Article also shows, installment fines practices of today differ significantly from those early experiments, as lawmakers have increased fine amounts, added on fees, surcharges, and restitution, and penalized nonpayment through additional costs and other sanctions. This has turned installment fines into tools of long-term oppression. Further, the early experiments were only ever limited solutions that left behind people in the most precarious financial circumstances, widened the government’s net around only those of limited means, and raised the risk that crime policy would be driven by revenue generation aims rather than justice. Those problems continue today. For all too many, installment fines are unaffordable, endless, and arbitrarily administered—and applied instead of better and more equitable solutions. We close the Article by arguing that the present-day uses of installment fines merit both constitutional challenge and policy reform.