Per U.S. laws, can a person ever pay a fine to avoid imprisonment?

  • It all depends on the law that was broken :) What was the crime? Misdemeanor? Felony? Were you convicted or just cited? Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 6:09
  • 2
    It very much depends on what you are being accused of. If it isn't paying a fine, then yes.
    – Terry
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 9:14
  • It depends primarily on the crime you would otherwise be imprisoned for. It depends secondarily on how much you're willing to pay and who you'd be paying it to. Also, the theoretical answer to this question leans much more "no" than the practical answer in corrupt systems.
    – WBT
    Commented Feb 18, 2016 at 18:42
  • @Terry this answer is completely underrated.
    – jqning
    Commented Mar 20, 2016 at 0:52
  • In Germany, for smaller things (usually things like traffic accidents where you are guilty but had no intent), the sentence is often "x days in jail or a fine of your income for x days", and it is your choice. Note that poor people will have a choice because their fine will be lower.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 8:17

3 Answers 3


There are many crimes for which the punishment is incarceration, fine, or both. The answer is yes, there are times when a defendant can pay a fine and walk away. That is in my opinion discriminatory in practice as the poor convicted has no real choice.

Your question appears to mean in all cases, in which that answer is an astounding NO. If you are convicted and sentenced to five years in state prison, you will not have the opportunity to pay a fine to escape that incarceration.

If you want to provide the crime for which you are inquiring I may be able to give you a specific answer, or better yet, look it up in your state's criminal/penal code. I believe all state codes are now online.

  • Great answer, although I disagree the practice is inherently discriminatory. What if any fines are imposed are at the sole discretion of a judge. From what I could find(famm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chart-All-Fed-MMs-NW.pdf) all (federal at least) mandatory minimum sentences only apply to jail terms; there do not appear to be any mandatory minimum fines (although maximums are set by statues). Thus a judge could certainly take ability to pay into consideration, among other factors, when deciding on a fine amount.
    – sharur
    Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 19:33

Generally not.

A judge in sentencing has a number of options subject to the statute or common law. A fine may be one option, imprisonment another. Others include community service, a suspended sentence or death.

What they choose is (subject to appeal or commutation) what you do. You can't substitute one for the other.


People can be jailed for not paying a fine (see e.g. Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors Prisons).

People complain that this is common, for example,

In America, people are routinely jailed for failure to pay fines.

Cash-register justice incarcerates or keeps on probation many people who are not dangerous, just poor.

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