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.[2307]


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.[2308] 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.[2309]
    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[2310] (but the court CANNOT forgive your victim restitution).[2311]



    If you owe payments on more than one case, make sure you specify which case AND which fine or fee within that case your payment is for—otherwise the payments may automatically go to your oldest case first. [2313] Remember, you want to pay off the debts that are conditions of probation, BEFORE paying off any other debts. Try to make small, consistent payments to the court. This shows that you are aware of your debts and are doing your best to pay them off. It may also keep the court from sending your case to collections.If you sign up for a payment plan, make sure to ask about the interest rate, any additional fees, and penalties for missed payments. Collection agencies often add extra fees and interest, which could increase the total amount you have to pay.Keep a list of all payments you make, including the date and time, and who you gave the payment to (the court, county collection agency, FTB, or private collection agency). When you make a payment, always ask for a receipt for the current payment and a print-out of the amount you still owe.


Even if you do not have a car and/or you do not drive frequently, traffic fines and fees can have a significant impact on your parole or probation conditions and/or ability to find employment. Because of their impact, it can help to find out if you have any tickets and if you owe any fees and look for options to have them reduced or canceled. A few of those options are discussed below.

> If you had pending (unresolved) traffic tickets and fines when you were incarcerated, you may qualify to have the fines cancelled under Vehicle Code Section 41500. See PG. 670 to learn more.

> If unpaid traffic fines caused you to lose your driver’s license, a new law passed in June 2017 may help. As of the passage of AB 103 on June 27, 2017, your driver license can no longer be suspended for unpaid fines. However, it can still be suspended for a failure to appear in court. Additionally, a court can no longer report a failure to pay fines and/or bail to the DMV, no matter the reason(s)! Before June 27, 2017, the DMV would suspend licenses upon receiving these reports from courts, but under the new law, this practice should have ended statewide!

If your license was suspended BEFORE June 27, 2017 due to failure to pay, you may still be able to have your traffic debt forgiven and have your license reinstated if…

    You are serving a state prison sentence or a Realignment sentence in county jail, AND your ticket was “pending” when you were incarcerated. You will have to proactively request dismissal from the DMV under Vehicle Code 41500. If you are sending it while currently incarcerated, it will need to be on CDCR letterhead and be signed by an Authorized Representative. Your request should be sent to: Department of Motor Vehicles, Division of Drivers Safety and Licensing, P.O. Box 9412890, Sacramento, CA 94290.
    Your license was suspended for a Failure-to-Pay, Failure-to-Appear or other failure-to-comply that is more than 5 years old. You can call the DMV Mandatory Actions line at (916) 657-6525 to see if your license qualifies.
    Your local county court has a process for waiving fees. For information on local court practices, the legal nonprofit EBCLC has created the following website where you can search for more information by county:
  1. 2307

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

  2. 2308

    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. 2309

    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. 2310

    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. 2311

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

  6. 2312

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

  7. 2313

    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.