Legal financial obligations in the United States: A review of recent research

Angela LaScala-Gruenewald, Leslie Paik

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In the United States, legal financial obligations (LFOs) include many types of monetary sanctions. For example, fines are tied to specific offenses and imposed at conviction and fees charge people for the “use” of courts, prisons, and other public services. With the rise of mass incarceration, millions of people across the U.S. owe billions of dollars in LFOs. Yet despite the widespread use of monetary sanctions, it was not until the last decade that research began to uncover the vast system of LFOs embedded throughout U.S. laws and understand their far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. This paper reviews recent research on LFOs across three areas: (1) the political development of LFOs, (2) their implementation and enforcement, and (3) the consequences of LFOs on people, broader social networks, and the functioning of public institutions. We conclude with recommendations for future research that explores the hidden processes connecting these three areas and accounts for the fractured nature of the U.S. government.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalSociology Compass
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • courts
  • criminal justice system
  • fines and fees
  • legal financial obligations
  • legitimacy
  • monetary sanctions
  • political economy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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