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Report

The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines

Summary: Court fees and fines unjustly burden people with debt just as they are re-entering society. They are also ineffective at raising revenue.

Published: November 21, 2019
Illustration of hands locked in a dollar sign
Adria Fruitos

Executive Summary

The past decade has seen a troub­ling and well-docu­mented increase in fees and fines imposed on defend­ants by crim­inal courts. Today, many states and local­it­ies rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic govern­ment oper­a­tions.

A wealth of evid­ence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehab­il­it­a­tion and creates a major barrier to people reen­ter­ing soci­ety after a convic­tion. foot­note1_roq83us 1 Alicia Bannon, Mitali Nagre­cha, and Rebekah Diller, Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2010, 30, http://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/Fees and Fines FINAL.pdf; Matt Ford, “The Prob­lem with Fund­ing Govern­ment Through Fines,” Atlantic, Apr. 2, 2015, https://www.theat­lantic.com/polit­ics/archive/2015/04/the-prob­lem-with-fund­ing-govern­ment-through-fines/389387/. They are often unable to pay hundreds or thou­sands of dollars in accu­mu­lated court debt. When debt leads to incar­cer­a­tion or license suspen­sion, it becomes even harder to find a job or hous­ing or to pay child support. There’s also little evid­ence that impos­ing oner­ous fees and fines improves public safety.

Now, this first-of-its-kind analysis shows that in addi­tion to thwart­ing rehab­il­it­a­tion and fail­ing to improve public safety, crim­inal-court fees and fines also fail at effi­ciently rais­ing revenue. foot­note2_pao4hxl 2 Traffic offenses may be crim­inal in some juris­dic­tions and civil in others. The authors attemp­ted to include crim­inal traffic offenses but not civil traffic offenses. Juven­ile justice, noncrim­inal traffic infrac­tions, and resti­tu­tion were beyond the scope of this analysis, though the costs of each are consid­er­able. The high costs of collec­tion and enforce­ment are excluded from most assess­ments, mean­ing that actual reven­ues from fees and fines are far lower than what legis­lat­ors expect. And because fees and fines are typic­ally imposed without regard to a defend­ant’s abil­ity to pay, juris­dic­tions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect. This debt hangs over the heads of defend­ants and grows every year.

This study exam­ines 10 counties across Texas, Flor­ida, and New Mexico, as well as statewide data for those three states. The counties vary in their geographic, economic, polit­ical, and ethnic profiles, as well as in their prac­tices for collect­ing and enfor­cing fees and fines.

Key Find­ings

  • Fees and fines are an inef­fi­cient source of govern­ment revenue. The Texas and New Mexico counties stud­ied here effect­ively spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise from fees and fines on in-court hear­ings and jail costs alone. That’s 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes and many times what the states them­selves spend to collect taxes. One New Mexico county spends at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises through fees and fines, mean­ing that it loses money through this system.
  • Resources devoted to collect­ing and enfor­cing fees and fines could be better spent on efforts that actu­ally improve public safety. Collec­tion and enforce­ment efforts divert police, sher­iff’s depu­ties, and courts from their core respons­ib­il­it­ies.
  • Judges rarely hold hear­ings to estab­lish defend­ants’ abil­ity to pay. As a result, the burden of fees and fines falls largely on the poor, much like a regress­ive tax, and billions of dollars go unpaid each year. These mount­ing balances under­score our find­ing that fees and fines are an unre­li­able source of govern­ment revenue.
  • Jail­ing those unable to pay fees and fines is espe­cially costly — some­times as much as 115 percent of the amount collec­ted — and gener­ates no revenue.
  • The true costs are likely even higher than the estim­ates presen­ted here, because many of the costs of impos­ing, collect­ing, and enfor­cing crim­inal fees and fines could not be ascer­tained. No one fully tracks these costs, a task complic­ated by the fact that they are spread across agen­cies and levels of govern­ment. Among the costs that often go unmeas­ured are those of jail­ing, time spent by police and sher­iffs on warrant enforce­ment or driver’s license suspen­sions, and proba­tion and parole resources devoted to fee and fine enforce­ment. This makes it all but impossible for poli­cy­makers and the public to eval­u­ate these systems as sources of revenue.

Recom­mend­a­tions

  • States and local­it­ies should pass legis­la­tion to elim­in­ate court-imposed fees. Courts should be funded primar­ily by taxpay­ers, all of whom are served by the justice system.
  • States should insti­tute a slid­ing scale for assess­ing fines based on indi­vidu­als’ abil­ity to pay. The purpose of fines is to punish those who viol­ate the law and deter those who might other­wise do so. A $200 fine that is a minor incon­veni­ence to one person may be an insur­mount­able debt to another.
  • Courts should stop the prac­tice of jail­ing for fail­ure to pay, which harms rehab­il­it­a­tion efforts and makes little fiscal sense.
  • States should elim­in­ate driver’s license suspen­sion for nonpay­ment of crim­inal fees and fines. The prac­tice makes it harder for poor people to pay their debts and harms indi­vidu­als and their famil­ies. Lawmakers should follow the approach taken by Texas, where recent legis­la­tion will rein­state hundreds of thou­sands of licenses. foot­note3_woygqbd 3 Tex. H.B. 2048, 86th Leg., R.S. (2019).
  • Courts and agen­cies should improve data auto­ma­tion prac­tices so that affected indi­vidu­als under­stand their outstand­ing court debts and poli­cy­makers can more thor­oughly eval­u­ate the effic­acy of fees and fines as a source of revenue.
  • States should pass laws purging old balances that are unlikely to be paid but continue to complic­ate the lives of millions, as some juris­dic­tions, includ­ing San Fran­cisco, have done. foot­note4_e3z152x 4 San Fran­cisco Office of the Treas­urer & Tax Collector, “San Fran­cisco to Become First County in the Nation to Elim­in­ate All Locally Controlled Fees Assessed from People Exit­ing the Crim­inal Justice System,” May 22, 2018, https://sftreas­urer.org/press-release-san-fran­cisco-become-first-county-nation-elim­in­ate-all-locally-controlled-fees. This would also ensure that indi­vidu­als who have been free and clear of the crim­inal justice system for many years are not pulled back in simply on the basis of inab­il­ity to pay.

What’s the Differ­ence Between Fees and Fines?

Fines, imposed upon convic­tion, are inten­ded as both deterrence and punish­ment. In Texas, for example, a fine of up to $500 may be imposed for a low-level offense, such as a traffic viol­a­tion; a fine of up to $2,000 may be imposed for more seri­ous misde­mean­ors, such as harass­ment or minor drug posses­sion; and a fine of up to $4,000 may be imposed for the most seri­ous misde­mean­ors, such as unlaw­ful carry­ing of a weapon and assault with injury. foot­note5_jumy70g 5 Texas Penal Code §12.03 (1994).

Fees, by contrast, are inten­ded to raise revenue. foot­note6_y8hhijs 6 Joseph Shapiro, “As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price,” NPR, May 19, 2014. Often they are auto­mat­ic­ally imposed and bear no rela­tion to the offense commit­ted. In most cases, fees are inten­ded to shift the costs of the crim­inal justice system from taxpay­ers to defend­ants, who are seen as the “users” of the courts. They cover almost every part of the crim­inal justice process and can include court-appoin­ted attor­ney fees, court clerk fees, filing clerk fees, DNA data­base fees, jury fees, crime lab analysis fees, late fees, install­ment fees, and vari­ous other surcharges.

The Grow­ing Use of Fees and Fines — and the Damage They’ve Done

Since 2008, almost every state has increased crim­inal and civil court fees or added new ones, and the categor­ies of offenses that trig­ger fines have been expan­ded. Our justice system increas­ingly relies on fees and fines charged to defend­ants in crim­inal cases to fund basic oper­a­tions. foot­note7_06fcny2 7 Matthew Shaer, “How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor,” New York Times Magazine, Jan. 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/magazine/cities-fine-poor-jail.html.

For example, North Caro­lina collects 52 separ­ate fees, disburs­ing them to four state agen­cies and 611 counties and muni­cip­al­it­ies. It uses fees to fund half of the state’s judi­cial budget as well as jails, law enforce­ment, counties, and schools. foot­note8_la9lo32 8 Joseph Neff, “No Mercy for Judges Who Show Mercy,” Marshall Project, Nov. 29, 2017, https://www.them­arshall­pro­ject.org/2017/11/29/no-mercy-for-judges-who-show-mercy. Using fee and fine reven­ues to fund the judi­ciary can create perverse incent­ives with the poten­tial to distort the fair admin­is­tra­tion of justice. When crim­inal courts become respons­ible for their own finan­cing, they may prior­it­ize the impos­i­tion of signi­fic­ant fee and fine amounts and dedic­ate substan­tial staff to collect­ing these sums.

In Flor­ida, a signi­fic­ant portion of the funds raised through fees and fines is alloc­ated to the state’s general coffers. foot­note9_7sqqcfe 9 Flor­ida Clerks of Court, inter­view. Color­ado has used increased court fees to replace and update public build­ings, includ­ing a judi­cial complex and a museum. foot­note10_ndalrlj 10 Mark Harden, “Judi­cial complex, museum get go-ahead,” Denver Busi­ness Journal, June 4, 2008, https://www.bizjourn­als.com/denver/stor­ies/2008/06/02/daily32.html?ana=from_rss. Flor­ida and Kentucky increased court fees as a way to address state fiscal crises. foot­note11_qddwbnc 11 Rebekah Diller, Court Fees As Revenue?, Bren­nan Center for Justice, 2008, https://www.bren­nan­cen­ter.org/analysis/court-fees-revenue; In Oklahoma, where a 1992 refer­en­dum made it nearly impossible for legis­lat­ors to raise taxes, lawmakers have increas­ingly come to rely on fees and fines to fund the state budget. foot­note12_p3cm8qy 12 Kate Carlton Greer, “Over The Years, Court Fines, Fees Have Replaced General Revenue Funds,” KGOU, Feb. 9, 2015, http://kgou.org/post/over-years-court-fines-fees-have-replaced-general-revenue-funds. Some fee and fine revenue has even been used for personal perks: fees and surcharges alloc­ated to a judi­cial expense fund in Louisi­ana were found to have been spent on luxury goods, includ­ing supple­mental health insur­ance for judges, two Ford Exped­i­tions, a leather uphol­stery upgrade for a take-home vehicle, and a full-time private chef. foot­note13_uqsyk4z 13 Crim­inal Justice Policy Program, Confront­ing Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Guide for Policy Reform, Harvard Law School, 2016, http://cjpp.law.harvard.edu/assets/Confront­ing-Crim-Justice-Debt-Guide-to-Policy-Reform-FINAL.pdf.

This increase in fees and fines has exac­ted a steep human cost. Indi­vidual amounts may be small, but they can quickly add up, mean­ing indi­gent people may face hundreds or thou­sands of dollars in accu­mu­lated debt that they’e unable to pay. While “debt­ors’ pris­ons” have been declared uncon­sti­tu­tional, many states still incar­cer­ate people for fail­ure to pay crim­inal justice debt. And even when fail­ure to pay is not an expli­cit charge, jail sentences are handed down for fail­ure to appear or fail­ure to comply — infrac­tions that often stem from fail­ure to pay. In Socorro County, New Mexico, for example, one magis­trate judge has adop­ted a “three strikes” policy. For each missed payment of outstand­ing court costs, the court’s enforce­ment response progresses from a bench warrant, to a bench warrant with a bond, to a charge of fail­ure to comply that carries a three-day jail sentence. Each day spent in jail may then be cred­ited against the defend­ant’s outstand­ing debts. foot­note14_we9526b 14 Deborah Fowler et al., Pay or Stay: The High Cost of Jail­ing Texans for Fines and Fees, Texas Apple­seed and Texas Fair Defense Project, 2017, https://www.texas­apple­seed.org/sites/default/files/Payor­Stay_Report_final_Feb2017.pdf. Under the guise of differ­ent charges, such a policy perpetu­ates the func­tion of a debt­ors’ prison.

In this way, crim­inal justice debt repres­ents a signi­fic­ant barrier to a person’s chances of success­fully reen­ter­ing soci­ety follow­ing a convic­tion. It also hurts the famil­ies of those who are incar­cer­ated, depriving them of a wage earner while adding new court costs to the defend­ant’s crim­inal debts. One study found that about half of famil­ies with convicted members cannot afford to pay fees and fines. Moreover, nearly two in three famil­ies who had a family member incar­cer­ated were unable to meet their house­holds’ basic needs, such as food and hous­ing. foot­note15_wrmr4wb 15 Ella Baker Center for Human Rights et al., The True Cost of Incar­cer­a­tion on Famil­ies, Sept. 2015, 7–9, https://ellabaker­cen­ter.org/sites/default/files/down­loads/who-pays.pdf. States such as Flor­ida that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fees and fines only exacer­bate this economic distress, as those who lose their license may then lose their job as well as their abil­ity to take family members to school or medical appoint­ments and to drive them­selves to court.

There is also evid­ence that fees and fines are assessed in a racially discrim­in­at­ory way. A 2017 report by the U.S. Commis­sion on Civil Rights found that muni­cip­al­it­ies that rely heav­ily on revenue from fees and fines have a higher than aver­age share of African Amer­ican and Latino resid­ents. foot­note16_9ajiqog 16 U.S. Commis­sion on Civil Rights, “Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communit­ies of Color: Civil Rights & Consti­tu­tional Implic­a­tions,” Sept. 2017, 3, https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2017/Stat­utory_Enforce­ment_Report2017.pdf.

By now, these harms have been well docu­mented. But there has been much less research conduc­ted on the fiscal costs of fees and fines. This report aims to start filling that gap. Without an under­stand­ing of how much govern­ments are spend­ing to admin­is­ter fees and fines, and how much in fees and fines is never collec­ted, decision-makers can’t accur­ately gauge the effic­acy of these programs.

Report Terms

Assess­ment. As used in this report, assess­ment refers to the amount of the fee or fine imposed by a judge on a crim­inal defend­ant at senten­cing. For many minor offenses, assess­ments are made at the conclu­sion of a simple hear­ing before a judge or magis­trate in which the defend­ant makes a plea, the evid­ence is reviewed, and a decision is made by the judge or magis­trate. More complex and seri­ous crim­inal cases may involve separ­ate appear­ances in court, includ­ing an arraign­ment in which the charges are read and a defend­ant’s plea is accep­ted by the judge, a trial before the judge (and possibly a jury), and a senten­cing hear­ing, at which point fees and fines may be imposed by the judge.

Crim­inal justice debt. Crim­inal justice debt is composed of legally bind­ing finan­cial oblig­a­tions imposed on those convicted by crim­inal courts. While such debt may comprise fees, fines, and victim resti­tu­tion — payments ordered to victims as compens­a­tion — this report deals only with fees and fines (see below), which are recog­nized as revenue on the balance sheets of courts and other public agen­cies. In contrast to private and many civil debts, crim­inal justice debt is enforced by the crim­inal justice system and can result in the issu­ance of arrest warrants for nonpay­ment, crim­inal court hear­ings, addi­tional fines and court surcharges, deten­tion in jail, inclu­sion on crim­inal records, and — in some states — loss of voting priv­ileges.

Fines. Crim­inal fines are penal­ties imposed on defend­ants after convic­tion, inten­ded as both deterrence and punish­ment. The amount of a fine is set by stat­ute and based on the sever­ity of the crime. For misde­mean­ors, fines may be relat­ively small. For felon­ies, fines are typic­ally larger. Fines vary by juris­dic­tion and may be enhanced for repeat offenses. For example, each of the three states included in this study imposes fines as a penalty for drunk driv­ing. For a first offense, New Mexico assesses a $300 fine, Flor­ida assesses a $500 fine, and Texas may assess up to $2,000. In all three states, drunk driv­ing is an enhance­able offense, mean­ing that the penal­ties, includ­ing fines, escal­ate depend­ing on the number of prior offenses. foot­note17_u1tsurq 17 Fla. Stat. §316.193 (2019), http://www.leg.state.fl.us/stat­utes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Stat­ute&URL=0300–0399/0316/Sections/0316.193.html; New Mexico Motor Vehicle Depart­ment, “DWI Inform­a­tion,” http://www.mvd.newmex­ico.gov/dwi-inform­a­tion.aspx; Texas Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion, “Driv­ing While Intox­ic­ated (DWI),” https://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/divi­sion/traffic/safety/sober-safe/intox­ic­a­tion.html.

Fees. Crim­inal fees, unlike fines, are inten­ded to raise revenue. Often they are auto­mat­ic­ally imposed and bear no rela­tion to the offense commit­ted. In most cases, fees are inten­ded to shift the costs of the crim­inal justice system from taxpay­ers to defend­ants, who are seen as the “users” of the courts. Cash-strapped state and local govern­ments rely on crim­inal fees to raise revenue for other purposes as well, thereby avoid­ing the polit­ic­ally unpop­u­lar step of rais­ing taxes. Most juris­dic­tions impose certain fees on every defend­ant convicted, regard­less of the nature of the offense. For example, one convicted of a misde­meanor in Flor­ida is charged a $20 court cost fee, a $3 Court Cost Clear­ing Trust Fund fee, a $60 Fine and Forfeit­ure Fund fee, a $20 Crime Stop­pers Program fee, a $50 prosec­u­tion fee, a $50 crime compens­a­tion fee, and a $20 Crime Preven­tion Fund fee, and poten­tially others. foot­note18_n82m3ak 18 Fla. Crim­inal Proced­ure and Correc­tions Code §938.01–938.06 (2005). Other fees are offense-specific and imposed only on defend­ants convicted of certain offenses. For example, in New Mexico there are fees for defend­ants convicted of driv­ing under the influ­ence (DUI) or drug offenses. foot­note19_qxbm9ca 19 New Mexico Motor Vehicle Depart­ment, “DWI Inform­a­tion,” http://www.mvd.newmex­ico.gov/dwi-inform­a­tion.aspx. While fees may be imposed by courts, parole and proba­tion depart­ments, and jails and pris­ons, this report focuses on fees imposed by crim­inal courts follow­ing convic­tion. In some juris­dic­tions, fees may be referred to by another name. For example, some of the fees imposed by courts in Texas are called “court costs.” foot­note20_c9o6hcg 20 Texas Judi­cial Branch, “Filing Fees and Court Costs,” www.txcourts.gov/public­a­tions-train­ing/public­a­tions/filing-fees-courts-costs.aspx.

Revenue. Fees and fines both serve as sources of revenue for state and local govern­ments. The permiss­ible uses for this revenue are typic­ally set by stat­ute. Many fees are earmarked for specific purposes, such as programs that divert defend­ants from prison, court­house main­ten­ance, or traffic safety educa­tion. Much of the revenue from crim­inal justice fees and fines is used to fund the judi­ciary or routed to law enforce­ment. In some cases it goes to a state or local­ity’s general fund, where it may be used for purposes wholly unre­lated to law enforce­ment or the courts. Fine revenue is disbursed accord­ing to stat­ute in each of the three states stud­ied. In each state, most fine revenue goes into a general fund at the state or muni­cipal level, though some is direc­ted toward partic­u­lar programs, such as road main­ten­ance or schools.

While state stat­utes prescribe the distri­bu­tion of funds collec­ted through the crim­inal justice system, the alloc­a­tion of revenue varies. For example, in New Orleans, the $11.5 million in crim­inal justice fees and fines collec­ted in 2015 was distrib­uted among eight agen­cies, provid­ing fund­ing for the muni­cipal court, district court, public defend­ers, and traffic court. foot­note21_lp294ja 21 Math­ilde Laisne et al., Past Due: Examin­ing the Cost and Consequences of Char­ging for Justice in New Orleans, Vera Insti­tute of Justice, 2017, 20–21, https://www.vera.org/public­a­tions/past-due-costs-consequences-char­ging-for-justice-new-orleans. In Allegan County, Michigan, half of court-imposed fees went toward running the county court­house, paying employee salar­ies, heat­ing the court build­ing, purchas­ing copy machines, and under­writ­ing the cost of the county employee gym. foot­note22_jck7hns 22 Shapiro, “As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price.”

Waivers. In some courts, judges have author­ity to reduce the amount of certain fees and fines imposed at convic­tion. foot­note23_p7gjbre 23 Neff, “No Mercy for Judges Who Show Mercy.” Amounts reduced without a quid pro quo (such as the perform­ance of community service in lieu of payment or time spent in jail) often are referred to as waivers. This is the mean­ing of the term as employed in this report. The issu­ance of waivers varies consid­er­ably among juris­dic­tions and states.

Jail cred­its. Some states waive fees and fines in exchange for jail time, which are referred to as jail cred­its and are distinct from the kinds of cred­its through which people earn reduc­tions to sentences. Though this altern­at­ive might be pitched as a bene­fit to those who want to discharge their debt in this manner, no one who has a choice and can make other payment arrange­ments would choose jail. Further, many defend­ants have no say in the matter. For example, one magis­trate judge in Socorro County, New Mexico, jails indi­vidu­als for miss­ing three payments without making a court appear­ance, regard­less of abil­ity to pay. foot­note24_bfossyq 24 Bren­nan Center original research (see Appendix B: Meth­od­o­logy). Perversely, people can accu­mu­late addi­tional fees during their stay in jail, leav­ing them with more debt than when they entered. foot­note25_gnglg63 25 Lauren-Brooke Eisen, “Paying for Your Time: How Char­ging Inmates Fees Behind Bars May Viol­ate the Excess­ive Fines Clause,” Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law 15 (2014): 319–341.

In some states, includ­ing Alabama, Michigan, and Texas, when people are picked up on a warrant for a fail­ure to pay traffic tick­ets or fines, they may be jailed invol­un­tar­ily to pay off delin­quent crim­inal justice debt through cred­its issued for each day spent in jail. foot­note26_7audtyj 26 State Bans on Debt­ors’ Pris­ons and Crim­inal Justice Debt, Harvard Law Review 129 (2016): 1024–1045, https://harvard­lawre­view.org/2016/02/state-bans-on-debt­ors-pris­ons-and-crim­inal-justice-debt/. These cred­its do not gener­ate actual revenue but simply exchange jail time for debt reduc­tion at a great cost to the govern­ment. Jail­ing also comes at great cost to the people affected and their famil­ies. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that impris­on­ment for unpaid fines or fees without a hear­ing to determ­ine abil­ity to pay is uncon­sti­tu­tional. foot­note27_q8ud0fi 27 Bearden v. Geor­gia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983). If courts find that a defend­ant is unable to pay, they are required to consider altern­at­ives, such as defer­rals, payment plans, community service, and waivers. Unfor­tu­nately, in prac­tice, many courts fail to make these finan­cial determ­in­a­tions. foot­note28_1kgc9mw 28 “Settle­ment Requires L.A. Super­ior Court to Consider Drivers’ Inab­il­ity to Pay Traffic Fines,” Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union of South­ern Cali­for­nia, Oct. 8, 2018, Amer­ican Civil Liber­ties Union of South­ern Cali­for­nia, Octo­ber 8, 2018, https://www.aclusocal.org/en/press-releases/settle­ment-requires-la-super­ior-court-consider-drivers-inab­il­ity-pay-traffic-fines.

Community service cred­its. Most states offer some type of community service option as an altern­at­ive to payment, though these prac­tices vary signi­fic­antly within and across states. foot­note29_gywom3y 29 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry, 15–17. Some states offer programs assign­ing people to pick up trash or main­tain parks in lieu of a jail sentence or fine, while other states allow people to meet educa­tional require­ments to pay off their debt. Some types of community service require classes for certi­fic­a­tion (e.g., controlling traffic for the Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion), which can lead to employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies after the debt is paid. foot­note30_1kwbnsr 30 Ibid.

In some states, community service is seldom avail­able to defend­ants because judges feel pres­sure to raise revenue for their city or county. foot­note31_twff61r 31 Ibid., 30. For those who get the oppor­tun­ity, community service hours are often paid at the federal minimum wage, only $7.25 an hour, making it unreal­istic for people to devote the time neces­sary to work down their debt. This is even harder if they have jobs or are caring for family members. foot­note32_d3yj8xd 32 Ibid.

End Notes

Key Findings

A. Fees and Fines Are Inef­fi­cient for Rais­ing Revenue

The costs of fee and fine enforce­ment are huge. For example, in 2017 misde­meanor and traffic courts in Travis County, Texas, spent nearly $4.8 million on in-court proceed­ings and staff costs related to fee and fine compli­ance. In addi­tion, the county spent more than $4.6 million on jail­ing those who failed to pay fees and fines and those allowed to earn jail credit against amounts owed.

On aver­age, the juris­dic­tions in this report spent more than $0.41 for every dollar they collec­ted over the period stud­ied. Because of a lack of avail­able data, this figure counts only in-court and jail costs. foot­note1_ozh6u5h 1 This estim­ate is neces­sar­ily conser­vat­ive. The authors were not able to estim­ate a number of costs, such as time spent by law enforce­ment, DMV employ­ees, proba­tion and parole officers, and others. If all costs were meas­ured — includ­ing the sizable cost to law enforce­ment for warrant enforce­ment and arrests, the cost to Depart­ment of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices for processing suspen­ded licenses, and the cost to parole and proba­tion officers for fee and fine compli­ance foot­note2_35p43jo 2 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt. — it would be even higher. foot­note3_uux4hnr 3 Ibid.

Compare these collec­tion costs to the cost of rais­ing revenue through taxa­tion. The Internal Revenue Service spends just $0.34 for every hundred dollars in taxes collec­ted. foot­note4_8f1b­fc1 4 Internal Revenue Service, Internal Revenue Service Data Book, 2017, 66, https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-soi/17dat­abk.pdf. In other words, it costs juris­dic­tions, on aver­age, 121 times more to collect crim­inal fees and fines even without includ­ing some of those costs — than it costs the IRS to gather taxes. Mean­while, Texas spends around $0.31 for every hundred dollars in taxes collec­ted. foot­note5_dllt­wck 5 United States Census Bureau, Annual Survey of State Govern­ment Tax Collec­tions, 2017, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2017/econ/stc/2017-annual.html; Texas Comp­troller of Public Accounts, 2017, https://comp­troller.texas.gov/trans­par­ency/budget/tools.php (computed based on FY 2017 expendit­ures). New Mexico spends roughly $0.95. It’s clear that general taxa­tion is signi­fic­antly more cost effect­ive than crim­inal fees and fines at rais­ing revenue. foot­note6_0ftb4yq 6 New Mexico Sunshine Portal, “Budget,” 2019, https://ssp2.sunshine­portalnm.com/#budget (computed based on respect­ive tax agency expendit­ures).

B. Collect­ing Fees and Fines Detracts from Public Safety Efforts

Fees and fines are most often eval­u­ated by courts and crim­inal justice agen­cies, legis­lat­ors, and poli­cy­makers on the basis of the revenue they gener­ate, but they come at a great cost to the crim­inal justice system. When crim­inal courts impose fees and fines and then spend much of their resources collect­ing them, this leaves less to spend on true public safety needs. For example:

  • When police and sher­iff’s depu­ties are serving warrants for fail­ure to pay fees and fines, they are less read­ily avail­able to respond to 911 calls.
  • When courts sched­ule appear­ances for fail­ure to pay, proceed­ings for more seri­ous crimes can be delayed or rushed.
  • When community correc­tions officers spend much of their time remind­ing their clients to pay unaf­ford­able fees and fines, they have less time to work with people to help them break the cycle of repeated contact with the crim­inal justice system.

These are just a few examples; there are many more ways in which crim­inal justice agency efforts to coerce payment trans­lates into less time spent on more valu­able crim­inal justice work.

Put concretely and in dollar terms, almost every cent spent on fee and fine collec­tion is wasted as compared to collect­ing tax revenue. foot­note7_wc0gl2s 7 The calcu­la­tion is as follows: if the aver­age cost to juris­dic- tions to collect crim­inal fees and fines is at least $0.34 for every $1 collec­ted, and if it costs the IRS only $0.034 to collect a dollar of federal tax revenue, then the juris­dic­tion cost minus the IRS cost is $0.3366, or 99 percent of the IRS cost — the percent­age of wasted resources. State tax author­it­ies in some cases spend more or less than the IRS cost, but the argu­ment still holds that much of the fee and fine cost repres­ents waste or funds that could be put to better use. This is a funda­ment­ally inef­fi­cient way to collect revenue to support courts and other crim­inal justice agen­cies, and it does not make fiscal or economic sense.

C. Almost No Time Is Spent in Court Determ­in­ing Whether People Can Afford to Pay Fees and Fines

One reason that fees and fines are so inef­fi­cient as a revenue raiser is that each year millions of people are given sentences that include fines and fees they are simply unable to pay. From watch­ing more than 1,000 court proceed­ings in seven juris­dic­tions, the authors found that judges rarely hold abil­ity-to-pay hear­ings. While there are plainly up-front costs asso­ci­ated with such hear­ings, in the long run, juris­dic­tions would spend less money by hold­ing them rather than trying to chase down debts that cannot be paid.

D. Jail­ing for Nonpay­ment Is Costly and Irra­tional

The Supreme Court has held that “punish­ing a person for his poverty” is uncon­sti­tu­tional. Still, states and local­it­ies continue to jail large numbers of indi­gent defend­ants as a sanc­tion for unpaid crim­inal justice debt. Jail­ing people for nonpay­ment is by far the most expens­ive method of enfor­cing collec­tions and gener­ates little to no revenue making it highly uneco­nom­ical. In counties where courts incar­cer­ate for fail­ure to pay, the authors found that the cost of incar­cer­a­tion dwarfs other collec­tions costs. For example, in Berna­lillo County, New Mexico, jail costs repres­ent as much as 98 percent of the collec­tion costs docu­mented by the authors. foot­note8_zuwuiid 8 New Mexico collec­tions data provided at case level by New Mexico Judi­cial Inform­a­tion Divi­sion. Cost data calcu­lated through a combin­a­tion of court watch­ing, surveys, and analysis of cred­its (see Appendix B: Meth­od­o­logy).

Further, while the full costs are unknown, they are consid­er­able — with many jails in Texas and New Mexico report­ing costs per inmate per day clus­ter­ing around $55 to $65 or higher — and the costs negate or reduce much of the revenue that city, county, and state offi­cials believe that crim­inal fees and fines produce.

Often when someone is unable or unwill­ing to pay a fee or fine, the court issues a warrant. foot­note9_75cy­dii 9 Ted Alcorn, “Hand­cuffed and Arres­ted for Not Paying a Traffic Ticket,” New York Times, May 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes/com/2019/05/08/nyre­gion/suspend­ing-licenses-minor-offense-money.html. Frequently, indi­gent people do not appear on their court date, due to a trans­port­a­tion issue (they may have had their license suspen­ded), or because they have to work, or because they fear arrest for nonpay­ment. In these instances, courts often issue a warrant for fail­ure to appear, result­ing in addi­tional debt for the defend­ant and, in some juris­dic­tions, jail time. foot­note10_gytsiot 10 Ibid. Some defendents receive credit toward their debt at a state-determ­ined per diem rate for the time they spend in custody; others incur addi­tional debt in the form of jail fees; and some are released still owing the amount they owed before the warrant was issued. foot­note11_nyi7uwt 11 See Figure 5; N.M. Stat. § 30; Fla. tit. XLVI; Tex. Penal Code. Jail­ing is partic­u­larly coun­ter­pro­duct­ive not only because incar­cer­a­tion is extremely costly to juris­dic­tions but also because it dimin­ishes a person’s abil­ity to pay outstand­ing fees.

E. The Amount of Uncol­lec­ted Debt Contin­ues to Grow

A substan­tial portion of fees and fines is never collec­ted and is likely uncol­lect­able, mean­ing that these assess­ments are an unre­li­able source of govern­ment revenue that will always come up short.

No one knows how much is owed in total because few states and courts track this inform­a­tion — which is itself a prob­lem requir­ing atten­tion. But from 2012 to 2018, the states of Flor­ida, New Mexico, and Texas amassed a total of almost $1.9 billion in uncol­lec­ted debt. foot­note12_fw72fmr 12 See Figure 3; Bren­nan Center calcu­la­tions. And in each of the juris­dic­tions stud­ied here, the amount of unpaid debt grew signi­fic­antly over the period examined. Much of this debt is unlikely to ever be collec­ted, as those with low incomes lack resources to draw on for payment.

This high level of uncol­lec­ted debt demon­strates why fees and fines are such an unre­li­able way to raise revenue. It also hurts those who can’t pay, putting them at risk of incar­cer­a­tion, loss of their abil­ity to legally drive, voter disen­fran­chise­ment, and increased diffi­culty in getting a job. And courts keep track of debts in perpetu­ity, making it all but impossible for defend­ants to get out from under them.

F. Juris­dic­tions Do Not Track Costs Related to Collect­ing Fees and Fines

For the most part, juris­dic­tions do not know how much it costs them to collect fees and fines. Of the three states stud­ied, only Texas system­at­ic­ally tracks some of the costs for court collec­tion units. But even there, the picture is incom­plete. No juris­dic­tion tracks any of the follow­ing: the court costs for fee and fine admin­is­tra­tion, the cost to public defender systems for deal­ing with their clients’ fees and fines, the cost to parole and proba­tion systems for fee and fine enforce­ment (whether they engage in collec­tions or simply remind their charges constantly to pay their court debts), the cost to DMV offices processing license suspen­sions or state tax agen­cies processing offsets, and the cost to law enforce­ment for warrant enforce­ment or arrests for fail­ure to pay or suspen­ded driver’s licenses.

Though Texas collects some data on the costs of jail­ing people who fail to pay fees and fines or are allowed to earn jail credit against amounts owed, most courts and other crim­inal justice agen­cies do not track and report such costs.

G. Fees and Fines Are a Regress­ive Tax on the Poor

Revel­a­tions that cities like Ferguson, Missouri, collect millions in fees from poor citizens sparked a national debate in 2014 about pred­at­ory and regress­ive policies target­ing vulner­able communit­ies. foot­note13_0q6w­fcg 13 Joseph Shapiro, “In Ferguson, Court Fines And Fees Fuel Anger,” NPR, Aug. 25., 2014, https://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-fines-and-fees-fuel-anger. The city relied on rising muni­cipal court fines to make up 20 percent of its $12 million oper­at­ing budget in fiscal year 2013. foot­note14_jym8se2 14 Depart­ment of Justice, Invest­ig­a­tion of the Ferguson Police Depart­ment, 9, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attach­ments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_depart­ment_report.pdf But Ferguson is not alone. As detailed below, fee and fine assess­ments in each of the states stud­ied amount to signi­fic­ant costs for the people who pass through the crim­inal justice system, many of whom are poor. Across the three states, billions of dollars are charged without regard to abil­ity to pay. Accord­ing to the Federal Reserve, many Amer­ic­ans are unable to pay an unex­pec­ted bill of $400. foot­note15_qq5s09t 15 Federal Reserve, “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. House­holds in 2018,” https://www.feder­alre­serve.gov/public­a­tions/files/2018-report-economic-well-being-us-house­holds-201905.pdf. The fees and fines charged in these three states may well be more than what the aver­age defend­ant can afford (and the notice­able growth of unpaid fee and fine debt bears this out). This is partic­u­larly so where evid­ence exists that poli­cing frequently has a dispro­por­tion­ate impact on margin­al­ized communit­ies. foot­note16_d4ekqw4 16 Frank R. Baumgart­ner, Derek A. Epp, and Kelsey Shoub, “What 20 Million Traffic Stops Reveal About Poli­cing and Race in Amer­ica,” Schol­ars Strategy Network, June 1, 2018, https://schol­ars.org/brief/what-20-million-traffic-stops-reveal-about-poli­cing-and-race-amer­ica.

End Notes

Recommendations

Courts rely excess­ively on crim­inal fee and fine prac­tices that are costly and inef­fi­cient, unfairly burden the poor, and do little to deter crime or improve public safety. Reforms are urgently needed.

A. States and Local­it­ies Should Elim­in­ate Court-Imposed Fees

Courts need to be funded adequately. But even under a conser­vat­ive estim­ate of the costs of collec­tion, fees are an inef­fi­cient source of revenue. In addi­tion, they fall dispro­por­tion­ately on the poor and create perverse incent­ives. And they trans­fer the oblig­a­tion of taxpay­ers to fund courts to defend­ants in the justice system, even though the system serves soci­ety as a whole. State legis­lat­ors should alloc­ate appro­pri­ate fund­ing to courts from their general funds and repeal legis­la­tion requir­ing courts to raise their own revenue by impos­ing fees.

B. States Should Require Courts to Assess Fines Based on Abil­ity to Pay

The purpose of fines is to deter people from viol­at­ing the law and punish those who do. But a $200 fine may repres­ent an insur­mount­able obstacle to one person and a minor incon­veni­ence to another. Char­ging people amounts they cannot pay is draconian. State legis­latures should stat­utor­ily scale fines accord­ing to a defend­ant’s wealth and how much he or she earns in a day, adjus­ted for essen­tial expenses and oblig­a­tions such as child support. In addi­tion to ending the dispro­por­tion­ate punish­ments given to the poor, slid­ing-scale fines would more effect­ively incentiv­ize the wealthy to obey the law. Stud­ies show that slid­ing-scale fines can increase both collec­tion rates and total fine revenue. foot­note1_3ggxrsf 1 Bureau of Justice Assist­ance, How to Use Struc­tured Fines (Day Fines) as an Inter­me­di­ate Sanc­tion, U.S. Depart­ment of Justice, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles/156242.pdf. Mandat­ing that fines are calib­rated accord­ing to abil­ity to pay would also drastic­ally reduce the resources alloc­ated to collec­tions — since fines that are manage­able are more likely to be paid — and reduce the burden on indi­gent defend­ants, creat­ing a more effi­cient and just system.

C. Courts Should Stop the Prac­tice of Jail­ing for Fail­ure to Pay

In the three states stud­ied here, 46 percent of fees and fines were not paid. foot­note2_oofzoi5 2 See Figure 3; Bren­nan Center calcu­la­tions. Some­times courts waive fees and fines for those unable to pay, and some­times they offer credit for court-ordered community service. Too frequently, however, they jail people for nonpay­ment. foot­note3_apojfjw 3 Alcorn, “Hand­cuffed and Arres­ted.” Incar­cer­a­tion as a penalty for unpaid debt not only is uncon­sti­tu­tional but, as a prac­tical matter, makes little economic sense. It provides no revenue bene­fit and is cost­lier for courts and taxpay­ers than simply forgiv­ing the debt. foot­note4_9gnijki 4 Bannon et al., Crim­inal Justice Debt, 25.

D. States Should Elim­in­ate Driver’s License Suspen­sion for Nonpay­ment of Crim­inal Fees and Fines

This punish­ment, too, is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. foot­note5_d5nueaj 5 Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Apple­seed, Driven by Debt: How Driver’s License Suspen­sions for Unpaid Fines and Fees Hurt Texas Famil­ies, 2017, http://stor­ies.texas­apple­seed.org/driven-by-debt. As with incar­cer­a­tion, suspend­ing someone’s driver’s license makes it less likely that he or she will be able to pay the debt, as it is diffi­cult to hold a job in most parts of the United States without access to a car. License suspen­sion also hurts famil­ies that depend on their cars to buy grocer­ies, trans­port their chil­dren to school, get medical care, and provide for other needs. Suspen­ded license enforce­ment becomes a need­less, costly prior­ity for law enforce­ment person­nel who could be deployed more effect­ively to prevent or respond to seri­ous crime.

 

E. Courts and Agen­cies Should Improve Data Auto­ma­tion Prac­tices

As the authors learned, many states and local juris­dic­tions are in the dark about the amount of crim­inal fees and fines that are unpaid and outstand­ing. In part this is the result of well-inten­tioned auto­ma­tion efforts that prior­it­ize more recent and crit­ical case data over older data. In other cases, as the authors found in some local courts, basic oper­at­ing records and ledgers remain unauto­mated, making it hard to quickly collect inform­a­tion on case­loads, amounts owed, and amounts paid. Given the risk of arrest and other consequences for nonpay­ment of crim­inal fees and fines, courts are under an oblig­a­tion to ensure that relev­ant data is easily retriev­able and regu­larly updated to reflect actual amounts waived, cred­ited, paid, and owed. Such efforts would serve poli­cy­makers as well, allow­ing them to more system­at­ic­ally assess the inef­fi­ciency of rely­ing on fees and fines as a revenue stream.

F. States Should Pass Laws Requir­ing Purging of Old Balances That Are Unlikely to Be Paid

As detailed in this report, tremend­ous amounts of old fee and fine debt will never be collec­ted but continue to burden millions of people. Juris­dic­tions are unlikely to receive revenue from arrears of any kind that go back many years, espe­cially from those least able to pay. Finan­cial profes­sion­als have long employed account­ing meth­ods such as “allow­ances for doubt­ful accounts” to identify uncol­lect­ible debts and assign them a value of zero for purposes of prepar­ing finan­cial state­ments. Some juris­dic­tions, such as San Fran­cisco, have adop­ted this kind of finan­cial prac­tice and wiped millions of dollars in uncol­lec­ted debt off the books. foot­note6_ig6g0g2 6 Joshua Sabat­ini, “SF Abol­ishes Abol­ishes Crim­inal Justice Fees,” San Fran­cisco Exam­iner, May 22, 2018, http://www.sfex­am­iner.com/sf-abol­ishes-crim­inal-justice-fines-fees. Courts should more widely adopt these prac­tices in track­ing and report­ing outstand­ing balances of crim­inal fees and fines, recog­niz­ing that older debts have little prospect of ever being paid. States should require courts to report on uncol­lec­ted fees and fines and issue peri­odic waivers or adjust­ments in cases where signi­fic­ant addi­tional payment is unlikely. In addi­tion to provid­ing relief to the least well-off defend­ants, it would free public agen­cies from expend­ing resources trying to chase down uncol­lect­ible debts.

Click here to down­load the full report [PDF].

End Notes