Poverty can prevent individuals from paying fines or fees resulting from a civil or criminal violation. Penalties for nonpayment can escalate rapidly. Over the past decade, the court system has become increasingly reliant on fines and fees to fund operations. In many jurisdictions, fines and fees for minor offenses, such as parking tickets and traffic citations, have become unreasonable. Exorbitant fines and fees are sometimes combined with aggressive and coercive collection practices. They can include using police as ad hoc debt collectors.
Some defendants face unaffordable payments that vastly exceed the cost of the original ticket, multiple warrants for their arrest, and even jail time. The U.S. Supreme Court has required due process and equal protections in such cases for defendants with low incomes. However, many courts have not provided meaningful consideration of an individual’s ability to pay when imposing or collecting fines and fees. The harm from these court practices falls disproportionately on communities of color and people living in low-income neighborhoods. Municipalities that rely heavily on revenue from fines and fees have a higher-than-average share of African American and Latino residents. In addition, according to the Commission on Civil Rights, residents living in the poorest zip codes of a city account for the vast majority of traffic infractions.
In 2020, some 11 million people had their driver’s license suspended because they could not afford excessive fines and fees for minor infractions. This can be particularly harmful for older adults. With a suspended license, they may not be able to get to medical appointments or socialize with friends and family. As a result, they often prioritize paying off these legal obligations to their own detriment. It can leave them with a lack of funds for necessities such as food, medical care, rent, and utilities.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has created seven principles on court practices related to fines and fees. These include conducting indigency determinations and not using arrest warrants and driver license suspensions as a means to coerce payment of court debt. DOJ also funded the Conference of State Court Administrators and the National Center of State Courts to establish the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices.
The National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices of the Conference of State Court Administrators provides guidance to state and local judges on fair procedures for determining ability to pay. In 2020, the task force issued a set of recommendations to state courts for reforming practices on court funding and the imposition of fines and fees. The American Bar Association (ABA) also provides guidelines related to fines and fees to ensure that they do not penalize people who are poor. Fees should be for no more than the cost of service and should reflect an individual’s ability to repay. Fines should not cause undue hardship, and judges should have the discretion to eliminate or lower them as appropriate. Courts should never impose disproportionate sanctions, including incarceration or loss of driver’s license, for an inability to pay a fine, fee, or other court obligation. The ABA also has issued a formal opinion that judges should only be able to incarcerate individuals for nonpayment of fines, fees, and other court obligations after formally determining those individuals have the ability to repay the obligation.
In the last several years, a number of jurisdictions have enacted major reforms to end the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. They include Texas, Montana, Idaho, California, Mississippi, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
EXORBITANT FINES AND FEES: Policy
EXORBITANT FINES AND FEES: Policy
Enforcement of civil and criminal laws should not penalize people unable to pay civil or criminal fees or fines due to poverty. Escalating fines, loss of rights, or criminal penalties should be avoided.
Funding of judicial systems should be fair and equitable. It should not have a disproportionate adverse impact on people with low incomes or people from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups.
The federal government should repeal counterproductive mandates for driver’s license suspensions. It should also create incentives for states to repeal laws suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees.