As we have noted in other Brennan Center research, the past decade has seen a troubling and well-documented increase in fees and fines imposed on defendants by criminal courts. Amidst this Covid-19 pandemic, we urge courts and municipalities across the country to prioritize policies that lessen the burden of court-imposed fees and fines on our citizens.
Impact of Court-Imposed Fees and Fines
Brennan Center Recommendation: Courts and municipalities should waive collection of all court-imposed criminal fees and fines for six months, with no assessments of new debt, and additionally, vacate warrants for all unpaid fees and fines. Courts and municipalities should also clarify that interest will not accrue during this period and ensure that tax refunds are not garnished, liens are not placed on housing, and access to benefits are not denied.
- Maine is completely vacating warrants for unpaid fees and fines along with failure to appear warrants. This period of social isolation left so many people without jobs, with some of them facing multiple financial penalties. With this move, Maine divested itself of 12,420 warrants for violations, including unpaid fines, restitution, court-appointed counsel fees, and other court-sanctioned debts.
- Minnesota; Chicago, Illinois; and Pittsburg County, Oklahoma are following Maine’s lead, suspending their collection processes, i.e. the issuing of warrants and the assessment of late penalties for up to 90 days.
- Louisiana’s 12th Judicial District Court has suspended payments of fines, fees and court costs including—probation supervision fees for felonies and misdemeanors, and requirements to attend substance abuse classes, domestic violence classes, life skill classes, anger management classes, driver improvement classes and MADD classes. The court will issue notice of reinstatement when “the current COVID suppression period is lifted “. This suspension however, does not apply to “any payments owed to the office of the Avoyelles Parish District Attorney.”
- The Supreme Court of Kentucky issued a 60 day continuance for “all show cause dockets for payment of fines and court costs” that were scheduled during the period of March 16 through April 10.
- Oregon state courts have suspended the following collection actions—imposing late fees on judgments that are 30 days old; ordering driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay a fine within 30 days; sending delinquency notes; imposing collections fees and referring cases to the Department of Revenue and private collections companies; issuing new garnishments. The Chief Justice issued an order allowing state courts to suspend or waive late fees until 60 days after the end of the state of emergency and is encouraging state courts to waive or suspend fines, fees, and costs, as allowed by law, for persons with limited financial resources.
- Ramsey County, Minnesota, has approved eliminating 11 fees levied against people in jail and on probation. Fees struck from the books include a $300 probation supervision fee; a $16 daily fee for home electronic monitoring for working people; a $3 fee for diabetic supplies in jail; and a fee of 25 cents per pill for over-the-counter medication while in custody.
- In North Carolina, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has postponed court proceedings until June 1st and extended fee and fine due dates by 90 days with a directive for clerks to not report failures to pay debts to the DMV.
- Los Angeles’ 90-day grace period for ticket infractions and lifting of driver’s license restrictions in April allows folks hardest hit by the economic impacts of the pandemic to continue to go to work without having to worry about being stopped for overdue fines or a suspended license. The collection suspension also allows people to continue to participate in their local economies, thereby lifting all boats in a time of economic crisis.
- Working with the Delaware Department of Justice and the Office of Defense Services, Delaware State Courts has launched a new policy suspending the issuing of failure to pay warrants during the current crisis along with the indefinite suspension of imposing late fees and interest accrual.
- On April 27, 60 New York State legislators sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo urging him to use emergency measures to minimize the harm of court-imposed debt during Covid-19.
- In Pinellas County, Florida, court-imposed fines with due dates between March 16th and May 31st were extended by 60 days.
- On October 1, the California legislature repealed counties’ ability to charge defendants for 23 fees, including “administering probation and mandatory supervision, processing arrests and citations, and administering home detention programs, continuous electronic monitoring programs, work furlough programs, and work release programs.”
- On October 12, Michigan Gov. Whitmer expanded criminal record expungement in the state, no longer hinging expungement on payment and making record-clearing automatic.
- On December 7, Seattle Municipal Court judges voted unanimously to eliminate all discretionary fines and fees in criminal cases.
- In Dane County, Wisconsin, the Board of Supervisors voted in December to discontinue the collection of fees and forgive all outstanding judicial debts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
- On January 4, Baltimore County eliminated all monitoring fees for people on home detention, a change inspired by the coronavirus pandemic’s underscoring of undue financial strains placed on individuals entangled in the criminal legal system.
- On January 16, the Sacramento City government began a new initiative aimed at understanding how fines and fees impact residents, particularly lower-income individuals and people of color. The initiative, which involves a series of public, virtual meetings, is planned to end in the reformation of fines and fees structure in Sacramento.
- In Virginia, a report released on January 18 found that “even for the most minor offenses, fines and fees can result in significant debt,” with a “strong, statistically significant relationship between the amount of fines and fees assessments per capita and the share of the population that is Black.” These consequences have only become more exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic, as individuals with limited financial resources have been pushed into even more precarious positions.
- In 2021, Dallas County commissioners announced plans to reduce the jurisdiction’s reliance on fines and fees, opening the door for the elimination of some court-imposed costs for justice-involved individuals.
- On May 20, the Nevada Assembly passed legislation to decriminalize minor traffic violations, converting them to civil infractions and ending the practice of issuing warrants in response to unpaid fees and fines.
- On October 4th, Governor Gavin Newsom signed California’s ABB 17, eliminating 17 types of fines and lifting a $534 million debt incurred by unpaid court fees and traffic tickets. The bill looks to protect low-income people from the burden of legal and court-related fees.
- On October 13, a group of Florida lawmakers filed bills HB 257 and SB 428, which would eliminate court fees charged to children while allowing judges to continue imposing restitution, community service, and non-monetary sanctions.
- On October 20, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to improve the enforcement and equitability of fines and court fees. The State Justice Improvement Act looks to provide state and local courts with new federal funding opportunities to reform their financially punitive policies, which historically have been imposed on people who are unable to pay and disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. On October 25, Senators Tim Kaine of Virginia and U.S. Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii introduced the State Justice Improvement Act in the Senate.
- On November 15, a policy brief released from the California Policy Lab revealed that Alameda County change in policy to stop incurring fees to juveniles on probation significantly reduced the likelihood and amount of financial hardship.
Brennan Center Recommendation: States should direct private debt collectors to suspend collections for six months with no interest accrual. Moreover, states should ensure that tax refunds are not garnished, no liens should be placed on housing, and access to benefits should not be denied during this time.
- In Nevada, the Deputy Commissioner of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry has issued recommendations that all debt collection should be frozen for 30 days. The Las Vegas Justice Court has suspended issuing defaults on all civil actions and orders for the examination of a judgment debtor, along with any writ of execution. They have additionally stipulated that any “property garnished or attached after March 17, 2020, must be released back.”
- In New York, medical and student state-owed debt has been suspended along with evictions, mortgage payments, and foreclosures for at least 90 days. The governor also issued a directive suspending the “commencement, filing, or service of any legal action, notice, motion, or other process or proceeding”.
- In March 2020, Lake County, California superior court suspended billings and collections for juveniles through the pandemic. Included in the order to suspend juvenile billings, the Lake County Superior Court has also “extended all traffic pay or appear dates and payment dates that were originally scheduled from March 18, 2020 through May 31, 2020 out to June 2020 and later.”
- On March 16, 2020, Maine’s court system vacated all outstanding arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees. The number of warrants vacated totaled over 12,000.
- The first Covid-19 federal stimulus bill ensures that states and municipalities cannot seize Covid-19 stimulus checks for payment of fees and fines.
- On April 20, the Indiana Supreme Court issued a protective order for stimulus checks to prevent them from being seized by creditors to pay past-due bills. As part of this order Indiana state courts are “prohibited from issuing new orders that place a hold on, attach or garnish stimulus payments that are deposited into a debtor’s account.”
- Chicago has delayed the referral of parking, red light, speed camera tickets to collection firms until June 1, 2020.
- In Connecticut, the state statutes were amended to provide that individual stimulus payments under the CARES Act will not be counted as income or resources when determining eligibility for state benefits or services.
- In a national poll released in January, 82 percent of American voters recorded their support for “delaying fine and fee collection during the coronavirus pandemic.”
- On February 22nd, The California Franchise Tax Board suspended all collection of debt (including traffic infractions and violations) imposed by state and local governments through July 31st 2021.
- Dane County, Wisconsin, in addition to the discontinuation of outstanding judicial fees, has decided to eliminate outstanding debt accrued by county jail inmates, totaling $149,828.75 as of March 8, 2021.
- On March 25th, Contra Costa County, California eliminated collect calling for youth detained in juvenile halls.
- Athens, Alabama has granted a penalty free 60-day grace period for all overdue fines and fees as a result of inability to make payments for March or April. Additionally, the city has extended suspension of service disconnects for failure to pay utility bills through June 22nd.
- On April 3, the Lee County District Attorney took action to use incarcerated people’s $600-$1,200 stimulus checks to pay restitution, court costs, fines, and/or fees.
- On April 10th, 2020 the Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered a 90-Day Grace Period on all Traffic and non-traffic infraction tickets and that “The Court will take no action to send such matters to collections if they remain unpaid.”
- On April 19, Washington, DC mayor Muriel Bowser announced that the district will return to pre-pandemic parking violation enforcement starting in June. She also announced that drivers with overdue tickets can pay them without penalty between June through September.
- On April 21st, 2021 Alexander City, Alabama announced their plan to collect over $133,000 in uncollected fines accrued over 2020 and 2021 and is considering deferred prosecution for those who do not respond to debt repayment requests.
- The city of Moreno Valley, California has ordered suspension of late fees, late fee penalties, and late fee interest on payments including utility bills, business license fees, parking citations, and library fines indefinitely “until further notice.”
- On June 2nd, 2021, the California State Senate passed SB 586, which, would eliminate most administrative court fees and would also vacate any currently outstanding debt due to fines and fees. The bill is now up for debate in the House but is expected to pass during this legislative session.
- In early June, Humboldt County placed an informal moratorium on collection of all juvenile debt and will not be performing active collection.
- On June 6th, Michigan’s Macomb County Circuit Court has ordered the elimination of fines and fees for families with juveniles in the criminal justice system. Additionally, the order includes a “discharge of $84 million in debt owed by families, which date back to the 1990s.”
- On June 10th, 2021, Michigan’s House introduced a package of bills (HB 4987–4991) to eliminate diversion program costs for juveniles, court costs and attorney fees for juveniles, DNA testing costs for juveniles, late fees for juveniles, and fee liability for juveniles and their families.
- On July 6th, 2021, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed HB 1315 into law, eliminating a laundry list of fines, fees, and other monetary amounts for juveniles in the justice system.
- On September 10th, The California Legislature introduced SB 177, which would end the collection of 17 administrative fees that are currently charged to people in the court system, as well as clearing an estimated $534 million in outstanding debt.
- From October 18 to 29, 2021, the Kettering and Montgomery County municipal courts in Ohio announced a “one-time amnesty event” to help people escape from their fines and fees histories. The courts will be offer a 50% discount on past-due court costs and fines.
- On January 6, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza announced that the state would be extending its tax collection deferral program for a second year, allowing low income residents to avoid having money taken from their state income tax returns to pay outstanding fines. The program includes a moratorium on parking and traffic fines and court dues.
Alternative Payment Systems
Brennan Center Recommendation: Courts and municipalities should implement systems to permit payment of debt online, over the phone, or via mail.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, courts had been steadily moving toward more remote versions of payment. However, for some, online-based payment options are still unavailable due to the jurisdiction they live in or the stipulations of which category of fees or fines fit the criteria for online payment.
- As of March 23, Bainbridge Island in Washington State has ensured that there will be continued access to phone, web, and mail-based payments, along with eliminating the convenience fees for use of the web and phone systems.
- On April 14, the Kentucky Supreme Court issued an order that, among other things, allows court costs, restitution and fines to be paid by money order or by phone. In Massachusetts, all court payments can now be made online.
- In Henrico County, Virginia, all payment and processing fees for online or by-phone payments have been waived for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Court ordered extensions and equal or less restrictive payment plans for court payment plans that were defaulted in the first few months of the pandemic. In contrast, Cumberland County (also in Pennsylvania) ordered that there would be no payment plans extensions in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
- As of December 7, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Western District of New York has suspended cash payments for court fees.
- On January 15, officials in Gretna, Louisiana agreed to waive fees for some low-income people charged with traffic offenses or other municipal crimes, instead entering them in a probation program that results in dropped charges upon completion.
- Starting May 1st, 2021 and ending August 1st , 2021, the City of Phoenix, Oregon has agreed to write off traffic debt 10 years or older, and for newer traffic debt the city is supporting other means of penalizing debtors through 50% reductions or community service. Once the discounted fines are paid, the city will release any holds on suspended licenses.
- In addition to suspension of debt collection, the California Franchise Tax Board is offering alternative payment plans for taxpayers experiencing financial hardship for state taxes and court ordered debts. California taxpayers can apply for payment installment plans by online, phone, or mail-in payments.
Driver’s License Suspensions
Brennan Center Recommendation: Courts and municipalities should discontinue license suspensions until further notice and, to the extent possible, consider reinstating all licenses suspended for debt-related issues.
- In Minnesota, the automatic license suspension process for failure to appear has been paused.
- In Chicago, driver’s license suspensions have been delayed until April 30, and the city added that there are no debt holds to be placed on new licenses or permits.
- The Chief Justice of North Carolina signed an order instructing court clerks to cease reporting failure to pays to the Department of Motor Vehicles, therefore halting driver’s license suspension, for anyone with court fines and fees issued 40 days prior to April 6. Fine and fee due dates were also extended by 90 days for anyone who was issued a fine or fee between April 6th and May 1st.
- Virginia will no longer suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay court-related debt. The law passed with broad bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Gov. Northam in late April.
- The County Clerk of Charlotte, North Carolina announced that, between May 11 and May 15, individuals whose driver’s licenses have been suspended due to unpaid court fees can get their licenses reinstated with minimal cost.
- In Florida, the 2nd Judicial Circuit authorized Clerks of Court to postpone drivers’ license suspensions for non-court ordered sanctions in all civil traffic cases for the duration of Covid-19 health emergency.
- In New York City, the 2020–21 budget includes a “ticket blitz” that will attempt to recoup some of the city’s lost revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic by charging motorists roughly $42 million, and potentially suspending licenses for those who cannot pay.
- Effective October 1, 2020, the Oregon state legislature ended the state’s practice of suspending driver licenses for nonpayment of traffic tickets.
- On December 31, Gov. Cuomo signed an amended version of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, which would end license suspensions based on them not being able to afford to pay a traffic fine in New York. The bill passed again in the legislature in March.
- On January 4th, 2021, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan signed a suite of bills into law to “eliminate driver’s license suspensions and criminal penalties for some traffic offenses; expand officer discretion to use appearance tickets instead of custodial arrests; use probation, fines, and community service as sentences for low-level crimes; and limit jail time for those who violate the rules of supervision,” in order to reserve jail for public safety risks and seek the use of jail alternatives.
- On January 15th, 2021, Maryland announced its plan to crack down on unpaid traffic violations and to suspend drivers licenses or registrations for unpaid judgements.
- On February 10, Texas state representatives introduced legislation to end driver’s license suspensions basis on overdue fines and fees payments for non-driving related criminal cases and standardize the process for individuals who owe fines or fees to apply for and obtain an affordable payment plan. These bills would not impact license suspensions based on dangerous driving or overdue child support.
- On February 18, a Nevada assemblywoman introduced legislation that would end driver’s license suspension based on unpaid minor traffic fines, fees, and assessments and reinstate driver’s licenses that were suspended for court debt from traffic violations. The bill would not affect license suspensions based on dangerous driving or overdue child support.
- On March 16, Gov. Cox signed a Utah house bill preventing the Driver License Division from suspending someone’s license solely based on failing to pay fines.
- On April 8th, 2021, the Connecticut legislature passed a bill that eliminates suspension of driver’s license as a penalty for failure to pay vehicular violation fines and fees.
- On April 10th, 2021, the City of Los Angeles Superior Court ordered that defendants with unpaid tickets and other traffic infractions can set a future court date and ask the court to immediately submit a request to the DMV to lift restrictions and suspensions on drivers’ licenses.
- On June 8th, 2021, Nevada SB 219 into law. The bill ends the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for infractions including delinquent fines, administrative assessment, or fees owed.
- On September 29th, the Arizona legislature amended parts of HB 2110, allowing for people performing community service to be compensated at minimum wage. The state also passed SB 1551, prohibiting the Arizona Department of Transportation from suspending or restricting someone’s driver’s license for failure to pay a fine and allowing judges to reduce fines based on a person’s ability to pay.
- On October 1st, Nevada’s SB 219 went into effect, allowing thousands of formerly ineligible people to get their driver’s licenses back. The bill no longer allows unpaid fines, fees, and restitution to be the basis for suspending one’s license.
- On October 12, District Attorney Billy West of Cumberland County, North Carolina announced that thousands of residents will be able to get their licenses back in a new effort to forgive debt on minor traffic offenses. To be eligible, residents must have had their licenses suspended for at least five years.
- On October 21, the Racial Profiling Advisory board of Wichita, Kansas implemented a new program to allow drivers with suspended licenses due to outstanding fines and fees to declare “Manifest Hardship” in order to have their license reinstated.
- Also on October 21, the Edmond Municipal Court in Edmonds, Washington shared plans to commence a new program to reinstate licenses to drivers while they make payments on outstanding fines and fees.
For further policy recommendations during this pandemic, please see the Fines & Fees Justice Center’s COVID-19 Crisis: FFJC Policy Recommendations and Reform Tracker.