Whether it’s a traffic ticket for rolling through a stop sign, or forgetting to signal before a turn, most people reading this will have had at least one experience with government-imposed fines and fees. For a wealthy person, paying a $100 traffic fine plus hundreds of dollars more in added fees may be a slight inconvenience, but if you are one of the 64 percent of U.S. consumers living paycheck-to-paycheck, that same ticketing fine and those hundreds in added fees could mean you are no longer able to afford rent or feed your family.

In the scenario above, that initial traffic fine and fees would appear on the same ticket, which misleads many to believe the two are interchangeable monetary sanctions. But there is a big difference between a fine and a fee—and that distinction has huge implications for how we understand their impacts.

A fine is a financial punishment for a civil or criminal offense. Some examples of common fines include those for traffic violations, littering, and cracked windshields. But fees—or alternatively “costs” or “assessments” or “surcharges”—are simply hidden taxes; their sole purpose is to raise revenue for governments. And governments charge fees at multiple points of interaction with the criminal justice system. They can be attached to everything from minor traffic tickets, to ‘free’ public defenders, and even to emergency medical care in jail.

Fees can quickly snowball into hundreds of dollars, even thousands of dollars, in court debt for people who come into contact with the criminal justice system. Those who can’t afford to pay these exorbitant fees risk a suspended driver’s license, arrest, and jail. Low-income communities and people of color are disproportionately impacted by court debt, but anyone who misses just one fee payment can be trapped in a cycle of debt and punishment.

Read the full article about governmental reliance on fines and fees by Antonya Jeffrey at Equitable Growth.