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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: February 5, 2021
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.
  • 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.

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”.
  • 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."

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.

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 January 4, New York Gov. Cuomo signed a bill that allows drivers to set up payment plans based on their ability to pay non-criminal traffic-related fines and fees. Previously, non-payment of the entire lump sum would result in an automatic driver's license suspension. 

For further policy recommendations during this pandemic, please see the Fines & Fees Justice Center’s COVID-19 Crisis: FFJC Policy Recommendations and Reform Tracker.