Leading Advocates Issue Recommendations to Biden Administration on Fines and Fees Reform

Letter Calls For Restoring Access to Justice Office & “Reinvigorating Federal Government’s Role in Fines and Fees Reform”

Contact: Jag Davies, FFJC Communications Director

Today, a broad coalition of leading civil rights, legal aid, and criminal justice reform advocacy organizations sent a letter to key White House and Justice Department officials with a list of recommended actions on fines and fees reform that should be taken or initiated in the first year of the Biden/Harris administration. The recommendations include:

  • Restoring DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice, which was established in 2010 but shut down in 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
  • Updating and re-issuing the 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter from the DOJ to every State Court Administrator and Chief Justice clarifying the legal framework that governs the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees.
  • Supporting proposed legislation incentivizing states to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions and to provide funding to state & local public defenders. 

Read the full letter here.

President Biden’s campaign platform included fines and fees reform. While in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris co-sponsored the federal Driving for Opportunity Act, which would incentivize states to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. The bill was just re-introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Coons (D-DE) and Wicker (R-MS), with broad support from stakeholders across the political spectrum.

Following the 2008 Recession, state and local governments dramatically increased the number and amount of fines and fees imposed on people for everything from minor traffic and municipal code violations, to misdemeanors and felonies and used draconian tactics to collect them. This regressive system of taxation is now entrenched in virtually every state, and in municipalities large and small across the country.

But over the past few years, dozens of U.S. states and localities have enacted a wide range of fines and fees reforms. Fifteen U.S. states from across the political spectrum including seven states in 2020 alone have recently passed reforms to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Hundreds of jurisdictions have also enacted measures to alleviate the harms of fines and fees in response to the Covid-19 economic crisis. 

A first-of-its-kind nationwide public opinion poll of U.S. voters on fines and fees policies recently revealed broad, super-majority support for a wide range of reforms.

Today’s letter is signed by the following groups: 

American Civil Liberties Union

Dream Corps JUSTICE

Equal Justice Under Law

Fair and Just Prosecution

Fines and Fees Justice Center

Juvenile Law Center

Legal Aid Justice Center

National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel

National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients)

National Legal Aid & Defender Association

North Carolina Justice Center

Office of the Ohio Public Defender

Ohio Poverty Law Center

Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law

Policy Link

Public Justice

Record Clearance Project of San Jose State University

Texas Fair Defense Project

Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Washington Defender Association

Western Center on Law & Poverty