Unaffordable fines and court costs: how to stop criminalizing poverty

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

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

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

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

Prison for debtors?

When people cannot pay a fine or court costs immediately, they often have to pay interest or late fees. Unpaid debts can ruin credit, making it impossible to rent a house, buy a car, or get a loan. In many states, courts are suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment, forcing people to choose between losing their jobs 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 on fines and fees, making it difficult to assess the national scope of the problem. A recent study estimated that Americans collectively owed more than $27 billion in fines and criminal charges. As with policing and mass incarceration, low-income families and black and brown communities bear the bulk of the burden.

Hotfix Best Practices

Recognizing that fines and fees are drivers 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, the NCAJ has identified 17 unique policies – best practices – that states should adopt to curb abuses. These include the elimination of fees, the creation of standards of inability to pay fines and the abolition of severe penalties for non-payment.

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

No state received a passing grade. Washington State placed first, with just 54 points out of a possible 100. It fully met less than half of the benchmarks (only seven of 17) and partially met three others. The good news, however, is that nearly all of the benchmarks have been adopted in at least one state, which means that states considering reform don’t have to invent a blanket policy to provide greater protection for people. who owe fines and costs.

The other good news is that states are looking to improve. During the last legislative session, New York considered a bill that would make it the first in the nation to abolish all criminal court fees and end incarceration as a possible penalty for default. The bill would also 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 role model and the first to receive a passing grade on the NCAJ index.

Other states are similarly pursuing significant changes. In 2021, the governors of 10 states signed into law new provisions to limit or eliminate one of the most severe penalties: the suspension of driver’s licenses for non-payment of fines and fees or for failure to appear in cases that relate to it.

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

Reduce crime

Reforming draconian policies on fines and fees isn’t just good for people like Brown who get caught up in the system because they’re too poor to pay. It also makes society safer by reducing crime. A study in Alabama, for example, found that 38% of people who had court debts committed a crime to help pay them off. Collecting fines and fees also distracts law enforcement and the courts from their main job.

Studies have shown that police departments in cities whose budgets depend most on fines and fees solve violent and property crimes at lower rates. And fines and fees are a very inefficient way to generate revenue. Localities spend an average of 41 cents of every dollar they collect through fines and court costs for court hearings and jail costs alone, or 121 times what the IRS spends collecting taxes.

With such harm and so little benefit, it is high time for states to re-evaluate their fee and fine policies. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. States need only look at 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 views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

lauren jones is the legal and policy director of the National Center for Access to Justice, a nonprofit organization based at Fordham University School of Law that uses research, data and analysis to understand how the civil justice systems and fail to achieve equal justice and create political solutions.

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