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Unaffordable Court Fines and Fees: How to Stop Criminalizing Poverty

June 28, 2022, 8:00 AM

For people with means, fines and fees that states and localities impose—for everything from traffic code violations to felonies—may be a slap on the wrist. However, for the working-class or poor, these fines and fees can trap them in endless cycles of debt and incarceration.

For example, in 2016 a court in Lexington County, S.C., ordered Twanda Marshinda Brown, a single mom who worked at Burger King, to pay $2,300 for two traffic offenses. Although she told the court she could only afford $50 per month, the judge ordered her to pay $100 monthly toward the debt.

She managed to make five payments before her son was hospitalized and several checks from her employer bounced, leaving her short. When she fell behind, the sheriff’s office arrested her and the court ordered her to pay $1,900 immediately, without ever conducting an inquiry into her ability to pay.

She simply did not have the money. Brown spent 57 days in jail. During that time, she lost her job and with it the opportunity to get a promotion and a raise. Every day in jail, she worried that her 13-year-old would be taken away—all because she did not have the money to pay traffic fines. Brown is now the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit challenging Lexington County’s practices.

Debtors’ Prison?

When people cannot pay a court fine or fee immediately, they often face interest or late fees. Unpaid debts can ruin credit, making it impossible to rent a home, buy a car, or get a loan. In many states, courts suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay, forcing people to choose between losing their job and driving with a suspended license. Some people lose their right to vote, and others end up in jail simply because they are too poor to pay.

States track and report very little data about fines and fees, making it hard to assess the national scope of the problem. A recent study estimated that Americans collectively owe more than $27 billion in criminal fines and fees. As with policing and mass incarceration, low-income families and Black and Brown communities shoulder most of the burden.

Best Practices for a Fix

Recognizing that fines and fees are engines of economic and racial inequity, the National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) in 2021 created the Fines and Fees Justice Index. Guided by a team of national experts, NCAJ identified 17 unique policies—best practices—that states should adopt to rein in abuses. These include the elimination of fees, the creation of inability to pay standards for fines, and the abolishment of harsh punishments for failure to pay.

NCAJ then researched policies in all 50 states to examine how the states compared and assigned points for whether states met—or partially met—each of the benchmarks. The findings are sobering.

No state received a passing grade. Washington state ranked first, with just 54 out of a possible 100 points. It fully met fewer than half of the benchmarks (just seven of the 17), and partially met another three. The good news, however, is that almost all of the benchmarks had been adopted in at least one state, meaning states considering reform do not have to invent a policy whole-cloth to provide greater protections for people who owe fines and fees.

The other good news is that states are seeking to improve. This past legislative session, New York considered a bill that would make it the first in the country to abolish all criminal court fees and end incarceration as a possible punishment for failure to pay. The bill also would end mandatory minimum fines and require judges to consider a person’s inability to pay. If New York passes the legislation next session, it will become a national model—and the first to receive a passing score on the NCAJ index.

Other states are similarly pursuing important changes. In 2021, governors in 10 states signed into law new provisions to curb or eliminate one of the harshest punishments—the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees or failure to appear in cases related to them.

Also in 2021, local governments in some cities—including Baltimore, San Diego, and Philadelphia—eliminated some local court fees. Almost a dozen states have considered bills to eliminate or reform fines and fees in juvenile cases in the last legislative session.

Reducing Crime

Reforming draconian fines and fees policies is not just good for people like Brown who get caught up in the system because they are too poor to pay. It also makes society safer by reducing crime. A study in Alabama, for example, found that 38% of people who owed court debts committed a crime to help pay it off. Fines and fees collection also diverts law enforcement and the courts from doing their primary jobs.

Studies have found that police departments in cities whose budgets rely most heavily on fines and fees solve violent and property crimes at lower rates. And fines and fees are a very inefficient way to raise revenue. Localities spend an average of 41 cents of every dollar they raise from fines and fees revenue on court hearings and jail costs alone—121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes.

With such harms and so little benefit, it is high time that states reevaluate their policies on fees and fines. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. States need only look to what other states are already doing to ensure that stories like Brown’s become a cautionary tale from the history books, not a headline about current events.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Lauren Jones is the legal and policy director of the National Center for Access to Justice, a non-profit based in Fordham University School of Law that uses research, data, and analysis to understand how the civil and legal criminal systems fail to achieve equal justice and to create policy solutions.