2021: A Watershed Year For Fines and Fees Reform

By Jag Davies

When historians look back at the emergent national movement for fines and fees reform, they may very well point to 2021 as the year when it all got real.

With over a dozen states passing reform legislation this year in states both red and blue, there’s no longer any denying that fines and fees reform is an urgent, bipartisan political demand. 

In 2021, the governors of 10 states —  Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah, and Washington — signed legislative reforms to curb debt-based driving restrictions. Since 2017, 22 states have now enacted similar new laws. No two state reforms are the same, though, and some of these reforms are more impactful than others — to see where your state currently stands, check out the national Free to Drive campaign.

One of the most encouraging signs of the year was that fee elimination efforts continued to succeed and gain steam. After passing legislation in 2020  to discharge $16 billion in court debt and eliminate 23 fees charged to people in the justice system — such as probation, parole and local booking fees — California enacted another bill in 2021 to eliminate 17 more fees and discharge another $534 million in debt. 

Similar legislation to eliminate a wide range of fees was introduced this year in Maryland and Delaware, as well as in New York, where the No Price On Justice campaign put fee elimination on the political agenda in 2021. The End Predatory Court Fees Act — which ends court, probation and parole fees, mandatory minimum fines, incarceration for unpaid fines and fees, and commissary garnishment for court debt — passed a key Senate committee in October and is poised to make waves in 2022.

Efforts to eliminate fines and fees charged to children and their families in the juvenile system garnered unprecedented momentum in 2021, with Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Virginia, Colorado and Oregon passing legislation to end some or all fees and/or fines charged to children. To learn what’s happening in your state, visit the national Debt Free Justice campaign to end fines and fees in the juvenile system.

Fee elimination also continued to gain traction at the local level. In 2021 alone, Baltimore County, MD, eliminated pretrial supervision fees; Multnomah County, OR, eliminated monthly parole and probation supervision fees; San Diego County, CA, ended fees for phone calls and video visits charged to people locked up in jail; Philadelphia, PA ended jail commissary fees; and Macomb County, MI, and Chatham County, GA eliminated juvenile fines and fees. Check out Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice to learn more about more local success stories — and how your local policymakers can get involved in 2022 and beyond.

Another encouraging sign for broader fines and fees reform was successful legislation in Nevada to decriminalize minor traffic violations. By treating them as civil infractions rather than criminal violations, this will  lift hundreds of thousands of warrants and end the widespread practice of incarcerating people who can’t afford a traffic ticket. We’re hoping this success spurs more states to decriminalize minor traffic violations and other low-level misdemeanor offenses that routinely trap people under inescapable court debt.  Check out FFJC’s recent Webinar on Nevada’s legislative success, what’s next in Nevada, and how other states can build on this victory.

Although fines and fees reform is predominantly a state and local issue, federal leaders are even starting to get in on the act. Bipartisan federal legislation, the Driving for Opportunity Act — which would incentivize more states to stop suspending licenses for court debt — is moving through Congress, backed by a powerful coalition of unusual bedfellows that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Fraternal Order of Police. After clearing both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees with strong support from both sides of the aisle, the bill moved to the Senate floor in October. (Add your voice in support here.)  

This year FFJC released findings from our nationwide public opinion survey of U.S. voters on fines and fees policies, revealing broad support for a wide range of reforms.  Four out of five U.S. voters agree that fines and fees should be reduced or replaced, and that government revenue should not depend on making people pay more through fines, fees, and tickets.  

It’s long been clear that when jurisdictions rely on police and judges to generate revenue through fines and fees, it’s a lose-lose situation for both residents and their government. These polling results show that fines and fees reform isn’t just the right thing to do fiscally and morally — it’s also the politically smart thing to do. 

2021 has demonstrated that fines and fees reform is a political imperative. Yet while the wind may now be in our sails, this movement’s ultimate success is far from inevitable. It’s up to all of us — as people who care about justice, community prosperity, and public health and safety — to ensure that meaningful change continues as quickly as possible.