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Easing the Burden of Fees and Fines During Covid-19

We need to lessen the devastating impact of fees and fines on indigent communities during the Covid-19 crisis.

Last Updated: January 7, 2022
Published: March 27, 2020

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.
  • MinnesotaChicago, 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.

Collec­tions

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.