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Fees, Fines and Ability to Pay

In far too many criminal courts across the country, judges impose fees and fines on defendants without consideration for their ability to pay.

February 24, 2020

This piece was origin­ally published by The Hill.

In far too many crim­inal courts across the coun­try, judges impose fees and fines on defend­ants without consid­er­a­tion for their abil­ity to pay. The result: people strug­gling finan­cially are saddled with debt that makes it nearly impossible for them to support them­selves and their famil­ies. The devast­at­ing consequences of these prac­tices are gain­ing national atten­tion. In fact, five of the current Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates have joined the grow­ing outcry against this approach and are trying to address the prob­lem through their crim­inal justice policy plat­forms.

Despite prom­ising momentum for change, some govern­ment offi­cials hold on, partly under the belief that they need fines and fees to gener­ate revenue. But a hard look at the numbers shows that collect­ing fees and fines is highly inef­fi­cient and costs much more than many poli­cy­makers ever real­ized.

Compared to fines issued with sentences, court fees tend to slip past the public’s atten­tion. Depend­ing on where you live, if you are arres­ted for low-level offenses such as loiter­ing or possess­ing a small amount of drugs, you could get charged dozens of fees: a fee for filing your paper­work, a fee for the court to figure out if you qual­ify for a public defender, a fee for your public defend­er’s services, a univer­sal fee wholly unre­lated to your case (like the one that funds a DNA program), a court tech­no­logy fee, and more.

We stud­ied fees and fines, observing more than 1,000 hear­ings in three states and found that, in most places, courts rarely consider a defend­ant’s finances and what he or she might be able to pay before requir­ing them to pay mandat­ory court fees and fines. For people who can’t afford the amount they owe, they become debt­ors whose bill collect­ors are judges and the police.

We assessed the costs for state and local govern­ments to enforce and collect fees and fines by analyz­ing data from 10 counties in Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as state-level data for the three states. The waste that we discovered tell us that every city, county, and state govern­ment should look hard at their fees and fines policies. The net gain might be far less than they have imagined, the losses far more damaging.

Because many low-income people can’t pay their debt, billions of dollars in fines and fees go unpaid every year while these debts hang over people, spiral­ing out of control as penal­ties pile up. In fact, our report found that from 2012 to 2018, Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas amassed a total of almost $1.9 billion in uncol­lec­ted debt. This debt is made up of millions of tiny debts owed by people who may never be finan­cially equipped to pay them off.

The IRS spends one-third of a penny for every dollar that it collects in taxes. In the Texas and New Mexico counties we stud­ied, the govern­ments spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise to collect the fees and fines they impose in jail costs and in-court proceed­ings alone. In fact, Berna­lillo County in New Mexico oper­ates at a loss in this regard, spend­ing more than $1.17 per dollar it raises in revenue from fees and fines.

But these figures are extremely low estim­ates of the actual amounts spent on collect­ing fees and fines. They don’t take into account many of the counties’ invest­ments in this work, like the time and staff­ing spent on enfor­cing warrants and suspend­ing driver’s licenses for nonpay­ment of debts.

We found it impossible to track many of those outlays, despite years of research, because collec­tion and enforce­ment involves multiple agen­cies and levels of govern­ment, and no one in govern­ment is track­ing the over­all costs.

It’s time for a true account­ing of what goes into collect­ing and enfor­cing fees and fines — and how that money and time could be better spent to improve public safety.

Communit­ies and their lead­ers deserve to know the full cost of rely­ing on fees and fines as a source of revenue as it would further shed light on the true economic burden they bear due to fees and fines.

State and local govern­ments can stop placing unjust burdens on poor people and their famil­ies. They can start to do so by enact­ing legis­la­tion to elim­in­ate the fees that the court imposes on crim­inal defend­ants. In many places, the courts rely primar­ily on fees for fund­ing, as opposed to taxes, despite the fact that they oper­ate in service to the public as a whole. States and local­it­ies should make general tax revenue the primary source of fund­ing for the courts, rather than fees.

States should also reform how they impose fines. To guard against assess­ing fines that defend­ants can’t afford, states should require judges to eval­u­ate a person’s abil­ity to pay and then apply a slid­ing scale to determ­ine the amount.

After digging into the numbers, we can add fiscal irre­spons­ib­il­ity and grow­ing burdens to those most impacted by these debts to the reas­ons to dump these prac­tices. Every juris­dic­tion using fines and fees must stop and do the math — all of it.