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Covid-19 and Criminal Justice: It’s Time to Suspend Fees and Fines

Even during normal times, fees and fines are an ineffective source of government revenue.

  • Mike Crowley
April 20, 2020

As the Covid-19 pandemic grinds on across the United States, many courts are effect­ively shuttered, while others are hold­ing video hear­ings or strug­gling under social distan­cing rules. But while many Amer­ic­ans are now out of work, the enforce­ment of court-ordered crim­inal fees and fines contin­ues in much of the coun­try. This needs to change.

Amid a sharp economic down­turn sparked by the coronavirus crisis, many states, counties, and local communit­ies are begin­ning to feel the impact of lost revenue. The increased pres­sure for revenue may spark calls for contin­ued and even more aggress­ive collec­tion of crim­inal fees and fines to fund courts and other aspects of govern­ment. But this is the wrong approach.

While courts have increas­ingly gener­ated fund­ing by impos­ing oner­ous finan­cial burdens on defend­ants, it is a hugely inef­fi­cient prac­tice. Accord­ing to a recent Bren­nan Center report, The Steep Costs of Crim­inal Justice Fees and Fines, fund­ing courts and other activ­it­ies with fees and fines is extremely cost inef­fect­ive and wastes resources that could be used instead to improve public safety. As such, the current economic down­turn should not be used to justify increased enforce­ment of fees and fines, as the impact of crim­inal fees and fines weighs heav­ily on those least able to pay. In three states, we found that unpaid court debts increased by $1.9 billion between 2012 and 2018. But this is just the tip of the iceberg for a national prob­lem — one that is only getting worse amid the coronavirus crisis and making life impossible for those out of work and for the “work­ing poor.” As many people struggle to pay for hous­ing and food during the crisis, courts should­n’t force an impossible tradeoff that risks land­ing someone in jail for trying to take care of their family.

In some places, author­it­ies have recog­nized that the collec­tion of crim­inal fees and fines are currently an impossible burden. Delaware, for example, has suspen­ded active collec­tion of all crim­inal fees and fines assessed. Flor­id­a’s 15th judi­cial district has tempor­ar­ily stopped using driver’s license suspen­sions as a sanc­tion for fail­ure to appear or pay fees and fines. Idaho has post­poned all court hear­ings to address unpaid fees and fines for 60 days. Minnesota tempor­ar­ily has stopped assess­ing late penal­ties and refer­ring past-due cases for collec­tions. North Caro­lina courts have exten­ded payment due dates for crim­inal infrac­tions by 90 days. Oregon’s state courts have suspen­ded impos­ing late fees, send­ing delin­quency notices, impos­ing collec­tion fees, and refer­ring amounts due to collec­tions. They also have halted driver’s license suspen­sions for fail­ure to pay fines.

Over­all, however, states, local­it­ies, and courts have been scat­ter­shot at best in their actions to reduce the burden of crim­inal fees and fines during the coronavirus crisis. These efforts need to be broader, more force­ful, and more consist­ent.

As the pandemic contin­ues to unfold, how can states and local­it­ies help reduce the impact of crim­inal fees and fines? Groups includ­ing the Bren­nan Center and the Fines and Fees Justice Center have outlined recom­men­ded actions for juris­dic­tions to take during the Covid-19 emer­gency.

Courts should imme­di­ately halt collec­tion of all court-imposed crim­inal fees and fines, suspend assess­ments of new court debts, vacate warrants for all unpaid fees and fines, and halt accrual of interest on amounts owed. States should discon­tinue the coun­ter­pro­duct­ive prac­tice of suspend­ing driver’s licenses for fail­ure to pay court debts — and consider rein­stat­ing those previ­ously suspen­ded for nonpay­ment. Author­it­ies also should:

  • Ensure that tax refunds are not garnished
  • Suspend placing liens on hous­ing
  • Prevent the denial of access to bene­fits
  • Direct private debt collect­ors to suspend collec­tion and interest accrual
  • Imple­ment systems to permit payment of court debts online, over the phone, or via the mail.

In addi­tion, law enforce­ment officers should release indi­vidu­als found driv­ing on a suspen­ded license with a warn­ing, or with a cita­tion and release. Muni­cip­al­it­ies should stop boot­ing, towing, and impound­ing vehicles for unpaid fees and fines. And courts and juris­dic­tions also should “proact­ively and widely commu­nic­ate” changes made in fee and fine enforce­ment to the public.

Even in normal times, the enforce­ment of fees and fines raises a host of issues around effect­ive govern­ment finance and the finan­cial burdens imposed on the poor. But there is a lot that states, local­it­ies, and courts can do to help relieve the unfair­ness, espe­cially during a pandemic and an economic down­turn. They can start by suspend­ing crim­inal fees and fines enforce­ment imme­di­ately.

Mike Crow­ley is a former senior fellow with the Bren­nan Center.