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Reform inequitable court fines and fees

What is it?

For people of color and low-income individuals, contact with law enforcement can carry a heavy financial burden. During court proceedings, individuals convicted of criminal offenses, and in some cases minor traffic violations, are typically charged a variety of fines and fees. In almost every state, defendants can be charged fees related to their detention and prosecution, including fees for room and board during incarceration, public defender services, medical services, and post-release supervision. City leaders can identify and advance specific reforms to create more just and equitable court systems. These may include eliminating court-access fees, prohibiting juvenile fines, capping the allowable share of revenue from fines and fees, ensuring access to free public defender services (including for administrative debt hearings), and ending warrants and jail time for unpaid fees. However, many local and state governments have increased their reliance on court-ordered debt as a stream of revenue to cover budgetary shortfalls in recent years.

The judicial practice of assessing fines, fees, and additional charges disproportionately targets the most vulnerable communities, such as low-income people and children pulled into various court systems through unlawful and biased policing tactics, and it reinforces the growing racial wealth gap. Black people appear to be especially impacted by cities’ over-reliance on fines and fees. Among the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenue from fines, the share of Black residents is five times greater than the national average. Ballooning court-ordered debt follows low-income people — many of them people of color — indefinitely, and can compound housing and employment discrimination.

In addition to the PolicyLink resources listed on the right, see the Vera Institute of Justice, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School for more resources on reforming fines and fees.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can assess city budgets to better understand the role that court fines and fees play in filling budget needs, the costs of implementing fines and fees, how the fees affect the local economy, and the impact the fees have on low-income people.
  • Municipal courts can employ a range of practices to reduce reliance on fines and fees, including requiring ability-to-pay hearings for all defendants, stopping the issuance of warrants and jail time for unpaid fees, and eliminating juvenile administrative fees.
  • Community-based organizations and other advocates can analyze city and county budgets to ensure that the fines and fees actually serve the public good, assess the impact of fines and fees on communities of color, and advocate for a range of policies to decrease the use of fines and fees.

Key considerations

While there may be incentives to use the court system to raise revenue, cities committed to fair inclusion must reduce their reliance on fines and fees and commit to building just policing and court systems. Local leaders working to eliminate the overuse of fines and fees must consider a range of related legal and logistical questions.

  • Budget implications: Municipalities will need to clearly assess the role of fines and fees in their budgets to understand the potential impact of reducing fines and fees. City leaders should also analyze the impact of fines and fees on low-income communities and people or color, and take steps to ensure that reduced reliance on court-ordered debt does not simply lead to the development of another form of predatory revenue.
  • Jurisdiction: Some fines and fees may be imposed by state law and may not fall under the jurisdiction of cities or counties. In those instances, local leaders should consider working with county and state officials to pass meaningful policy reforms.
  • Police role/reassignment: Racial profiling and over-policing in communities of color contributes to the disproportionate assessment of fines and fees against people of color and heightens tensions between residents and police. Police commissioners and other city officials should collaborate to redirect police efforts toward public safety priorities.
  • Judicial compliance and enforcement: Courts should routinely conduct ability-to-pay hearings to determine whether an individual can pay a fine or fee. In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled that before jailing a defendant for the non-payment of a fine or fee, courts must determine whether the failure to pay was willful or due to the defendant’s indigence. Yet many judges do not conduct such an assessment, and, as a result, poor defendants are sometimes ordered to jail for failing to pay fines and fees. City leaders may need to partner with courts to develop an ability-to-pay standard and process for ensuring that judges apply it.

Where is it working?

City leaders can take steps to reform inequitable fines and fees that strip wealth from communities of color and trap poor people in de facto debtors’ prisons.

  • Benton County, Washington, made a series of changes in its handling of outstanding fines and fees. In 2015, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of three indigent plaintiffs — Jayne Fuentes, Gina Taggart, and Reese Groves — who suffered serious hardships as a result of court-imposed debts. The following year, the plaintiffs reached a settlement agreement with Benton County, which agreed to reforms to protect the rights of poor people charged with nonpayment of court fines and fees. The county no longer issues warrants for individuals with unpaid court debt.
  • In settling a lawsuit brought on behalf of a woman who was jailed for unpaid traffic tickets, Montgomery, Alabama, agreed to institute a “presumption of indigence” for defendants at or below 125% of the federal poverty level, and will no longer jail people who are unable to pay fines and fees associated with minor traffic violations.
  • In Leon County, Florida, a research report revealed that their efforts to arrest and jail those with court debt was a substantial drain on county funds and staff resources. The county closed its collections court and terminated approximately 8,000 outstanding arrest warrants that were issued for nonpayment.