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The Unknown Cost of Criminal Fees and Fines

Public safety gets overlooked when local justice institutions become collections agencies.

  • Mike Crowley
June 18, 2020

Since the 1980s, “tough on crime” meas­ures have led to aggress­ive and some­times abus­ive poli­cing, more incar­cer­a­tion, longer sentences, and increased crim­inal fees and fines. But the cost of chas­ing the revenue from fees and fines largely goes unre­cog­nized and distorts what our courts and law enforce­ment agen­cies do. When courts and police depart­ments prior­it­ize collect­ing revenue over public safety, they are not work­ing for the bene­fit of communit­ies. 

A 2015 Justice Depart­ment invest­ig­a­tion found that police and courts in Ferguson, Missouri were motiv­ated more by revenue than public safety. Research shows that many counties depend on fees and fines for much of their police and court spend­ing. The aver­age county offsets 7 percent of the costs of public safety with fees and fines. But in 20 percent of counties, fees and fines provide the revenue that funds almost a third of public safety. For some counties, it’s much more. But at what cost? Based on data from three states — Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas — the Bren­nan Center found that no one knows what crim­inal fees and fines cost: not the lawmakers who legis­late these penal­ties, not the judges and the clerks in the courts that impose these finan­cial oblig­a­tions, and no one else in the justice system. It’s a prob­lem we describe in the UCLA Crim­inal Justice Law Review article If We Only Knew The Cost: Scratch­ing The Surface On How Much It Costs To Assess And Collect Court Imposed Crim­inal Fees And Fines

Fees and fines are collec­ted by a complex web of juris­dic­tions, courts, and agen­cies. To conduct research for the Bren­nan Center report The Steep Costs of Crim­inal Justice Fees and Fines, we contac­ted judges, court clerks, public defend­ers, prosec­utors, proba­tion officers, state depart­ments of motor vehicles, and tax agen­cies. We eval­u­ated courts and justice agen­cies in 10 counties across Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas. We found that no one knows how much is spent impos­ing, enfor­cing, and collect­ing these court-imposed finan­cial oblig­a­tions.

To illus­trate, no one tracks how much time courts spend impos­ing crim­inal fees and fines or hold­ing hear­ings for abil­ity to pay or nonpay­ment. With limited excep­tion, court collec­tion costs are unknown. The cost of jail­ing for nonpay­ment isn’t monitored. Police and sher­iff’s depart­ments don’t know how much they spend enfor­cing warrants for fail­ure to pay. Parole and proba­tion agen­cies don’t track time spent on fee and fine compli­ance.

Despite the lack of data, in the juris­dic­tions we researched, we estim­ated costs of $0.41 or more per dollar collec­ted in crim­inal fee and fine revenue based on court watch­ing and jail­ing for nonpay­ment. That’s only a partial reck­on­ing, but it high­lights tremend­ous inef­fi­ciency when states spend just a frac­tion of that collect­ing tax revenue. Consider, for example, that Texas spends just $0.31 and that New Mexico spends $0.95, respect­ively, to collect one hundred dollars of taxes.

Fund­ing courts and crim­inal justice from fees and fines wastes justice system resources at the expense of public safety. They take time away from respond­ing to 911 calls, lead to delayed or rushed court proceed­ings, and limit work­ing with proba­tion­ers and parolees to help them make a better start. Public safety gets over­looked when our local justice insti­tu­tions become collec­tions agen­cies. Of similar import­ance, spend­ing resources on crim­inal fee and fine collec­tion comes at the expense of meet­ing other crit­ical community needs for educa­tion, hous­ing, health care, and mental well­ness.

The burden of crim­inal fees and fines typic­ally falls on those who are least able to pay. While there is little report­ing on amounts that go unpaid, we found $1.9 billion in unpaid court debts accu­mu­lated in Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas between 2012 and 2018. In Cali­for­nia, a rare example of statewide track­ing, cumu­lat­ive uncol­lec­ted payments for crim­inal fees and fines totaled $12.3 billion in 2016. Much of this, accord­ing to the state legis­lat­ive analys­t’s office, would not be worth the cost of collec­tion. Over the past year, Cali­for­nia legis­lat­ors considered a bill that would cancel many fees charged to crim­inal defend­ants. That legis­la­tion may fail over the poten­tial loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. However, the cost of collect­ing that revenue has gone unre­cog­nized.

State lawmakers need to under­stand the cost of collect­ing crim­inal fees and fines. In Texas, the state legis­lature recently canceled the Collec­tion Improve­ment Program, which provides statewide report­ing to track revenue produced by muni­cipal, county, and district crim­inal courts. While the move took some pres­sure off the courts to produce revenue, it also gutted one of the only efforts to tracks the costs of collect­ing fees and fines. In Flor­ida, New Mexico, and most other states, no one knows the cost of collect­ing fees and fines.

Crim­inal fees and fines are just one example of a sprawl­ing crim­inal justice system built with little appre­ci­ation for — and some­times negli­gible know­ledge of — actual costs. With virtu­ally every state and community buffeted by Covid-19 pandemic-induced fiscal woes, we can no longer afford to ignore the cost.

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