Reducing or Forgiving Court-Ordered Debt

What options do I have to reduce or forgive my court-ordered debt?

It depends on the type of court-ordered debt.


As we have stated, restitution is mandatory and stays with you for life. However, a judge may order you to do community service instead of paying restitution if he or she finds “compelling and extraordinary reasons” for doing so. Again, your inability to pay is not a compelling or extraordinary reason.[2287]


It is often possible to get your fines and fees reduced or forgiven (“vacated”) by the court. However, it depends heavily on what county your debt is from, and which judge is considering your case.

In general, judges are more likely to reduce or waive fines and fees if you can show that:

    You’re making an effort to pay your debts (for example, you’re paying restitution, even though you can’t afford to pay the other fines and fees);
    You’re taking steps toward rehabilitation (for example, you’re in drug treatment or anger management counseling; you’re enrolled in school; you’ve reunited with your family); and
    You’re following all other conditions of your supervision.

Here are some ways that you may be able to reduce, forgive, or otherwise satisfy your fines and fees:

    Some courts may allow you to do community service instead of paying your fines and fees.[2288] However, there is a lot of variation from county to county, and many counties may not offer community service at all. If the judge did not give you the option of community service at sentencing, you should contact the court or local public defender to ask if the county runs a community service program.
    The court may allow you to voluntarily choose to do jail time instead of paying your court-ordered fines. You can get your debt reduced by $30/day spent in custody.[2289]
    You can go to the court directly and ask the judge to forgive (“vacate” or “dismiss”) or reduce your debts.
    If you get your conviction dismissed, the court can forgive any remaining fines and fees you owe, including restitution fines[2290] (but the court CANNOT forgive your victim restitution).[2291]



Expenses from traffic fines and fees may seem unimportant if you do not have a car and/or you do not drive frequently. However, remember that these fees (like the other fees discussed in this Chapter) may have a significant impact on your parole or probation conditions and/or finding employment. Because of their impact, it can help to find out if you have any tickets and if you owe any fees, so you can make informed future decisions about how to resolve your debt.

  1. 2287

    Cal. Penal Code § 1202.4(n); cf. 1202.4(c), (g).

  2. 2288

    Marcus Nieto, Cal. Research Bureau, Who Pays for Penalty Assessment Programs in California? 19-26 (Feb. 2006), (judges can impose community service in place of fines and fees); Brennan Center, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry at 42 n.75 (describing county-level variations); Interview with Buffy Hutchinson, Criminal Defense Attorney, San Francisco, Dec. 18, 2014.

  3. 2289

    Cal. Penal Code §§ 1205(a), (b), 2900.5; People v. McGarry, 96 Cal. App. 4th 644, 652 (2002); see also Brennan Center for Justice, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry at 50 n.138, n.142 (2010),

  4. 2290

    Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.4, 1203.4a; People v. Holman, 214 Cal. App. 4th 1438 (2013); People v. Guillen, 218 Cal. App. 4th 975 (2013).

  5. 2291

    Cal. Const., art. I, § 28(b)(13) (Marsy’s Law); Cal. Penal Code §§ 1203.4, 1203.4a.

  6. 2292

    Interview with Michele Vela-Payne, Supervising Probation Officer, Sacramento Cnty. Prob. Dep’t, Nov. 5, 2014.

  7. 2293

    Cal. Penal Code § 1203.1d (allocation of partial payments). The older case may not be the most important one to pay off; for example, if you owe administrative fees on the older case, but you owe restitution or other fines that are conditions of probation on a newer case, making payments on the newer case is more important.