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What can be done about court costs and fines

Posted September 2, 2022
12:05 pm

By Royce Johnson

Are you struggling to pay money owed from an old criminal case? You are not alone - many people in Ohio have this problem! Unfortunately, this problem affects many people of color, who are disproportionately involved in the criminal process, and many people with disabilities, who have a fixed, limited income. If you are a person with a limited income, you may feel trapped by this debt. You may be afraid of what the Court will do if you can’t pay. You may also be unable to seal your criminal record because of the debt and unable to find work because of this very record. Despite these burdens, you may have options. Courts must fairly assess fines and costs for defendants.

What is the difference between a fine and a cost?
Fines are a criminal penalty. When a person has not paid their court fines, the court may sentence that person to jail for refusing to pay the fine. The court should only use this method as a last resort. Before doing so, the court must conduct an ability-to-pay hearing, advise you of your right to counsel, and you must have willfully refused to pay the fines.

In Ohio, a person cannot be ordered to serve additional days in jail for failure to pay a fine if the maximum jail sentence was already served. If you are jailed for failure to pay court fines, you will receive a credit towards the fine of $50.00 per day spent incarcerated. However, this may not go beyond six months. A court may force the defendant to perform community service instead of paying court fines. Contempt of court may be issued if a defendant fails to appear for a court-ordered hearing, including a hearing for non-payment of fines. In addition, the court may issue a Driver’s License Forfeiture (limited to Traffic cases only), a Driver’s License Warrant Block, or an Extension of Probation (if within maximum allowable term of probation and if made a condition of probation).

Court costs and fees are civil, not criminal, requirements. A key difference from fines is that a court may not order a person to appear in court or issue a warrant for arrest because of unpaid court costs. Similar to fines, a court may order a person to perform community service and issue a registration block instead paying court costs. The court may not sentence a person to jail for failing to pay a cost though.

What can you do about court costs?
The courts can waive, suspend, or modify the payment of court costs. If at any time the court finds that an amount owed to the court is due and the defendant is unable to pay, the court can cancel all or part of the debt owed. If the court does not cancel the debt on its own, you can consult an attorney to file a motion requesting the court to waive, suspend, or modify the costs attached to a conviction. If granted, costs will not have to be paid to the court. Courts may also offer payment plans for defendants to pay a portion of the amount owed each month.

What can I do after my fines and costs are paid?
Once your costs and fines are paid, you may be eligible for record sealing after waiting the required amount of time from “final discharge”. Final discharge means that all your obligations in your criminal case are met – this includes paying court costs and fines. The waiting periods are different depending on the conviction.

This article was published in Legal Aid's newsletter, "The Alert" Volume 38, Issue 2, in Summer 2022. See full issue at this link: “The Alert” – Volume 38, Issue 2 – Legal Aid Society of Cleveland (  

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