Since the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, public awareness of the harms of fees and fines has grown substantially, along with an understanding of the large scope of the problem. Many states and localities rely on fees and fines to fund their courts, criminal justice agencies, and even government activity wholly unrelated to public safety. And there are profound negative impacts on individuals, families, and entire communities when these costs are imposed on people too poor to pay these fees and fines.
At this pivotal time, the Fines & Fees Justice Center (FFJC) has launched an online clearinghouse that collects and digests research, pilot projects, litigation, legislation, court-rule changes, and media related to fines and fees in the United States. This resource will be useful to criminal justice reform efforts targeting the significant problems of fees and fines in our justice system. The clearinghouse collects guidance and tools for policymakers, courts, community organizations, and advocates looking to advance fee and fine reform. For example, a lawmaker seeking to reform their jurisdiction’s fee and fine system can find examples of similar legislation that have been introduced elsewhere. A litigator seeking to challenge indigent detention can find other similar cases and research how courts responded to those claims.
The clearinghouse also showcases the Brennan Center’s long-term and ongoing work on this issue. Our 2010 Brennan Center report Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry found that while many fees are small individually, they can quickly add up. The report found that criminal justice debt functions as a significant barrier to a person’s chances of successfully reentering society following a conviction. A 2014 survey conducted by the Brennan Center along with National Public Radio and the National Center for State Courts found that between 2008 and 2014, “48 states increased criminal and civil court fees, added new ones or both.” A 2015 Brennan Center study focused on how fees and fines perpetuate mass incarceration. The clearinghouse also features Brennan Center studies on the impact of fees and fines in Florida and Maryland.
The Fines & Fees Justice Center was founded by Lisa Foster and Joanna Weiss as a national center for advocacy, information, and collaboration. FFJC seeks to eliminate fees and ensure that fines are fairly imposed. Their three-pronged approach includes developing a replicable advocacy model for comprehensive state-based reform, operating a national clearinghouse to provide information about reform nationwide, and supporting reform efforts around the country. They are currently working with advocates and stakeholders in New York and Florida.