Think Local, Act Local: How Cities and Counties Can Lead Fines and Fees Reform

By Joni Hirsch Kaden, FFJC Local Initiatives Strategist

A government’s budget is the ultimate statement of its priorities. It signals to constituents which services and programs are deemed essential to the creation of a thriving community.

But where government money comes from is just as important as how that money is spent. And right now too many local governments are attempting to fund themselves from a regressive, unreliable source of revenue: fines and fees.

Using the justice system to scrape what little money is left in the pockets of working class families does little to raise government revenue. Instead, it entrenches a two-tier justice system where poverty is punished and wealth is rewarded. When this happens, perverse incentives are established deep within the bedrock of the institutions we consider sacred, corrupting the administration of justice.

Even a minor traffic ticket often results in lifelong consequences for those who can’t pay them: exorbitant late fees, driver’s license suspension, incarceration, and losing access to basic needs like housing and food. Government reliance on fines and fees for revenue has also been shown to put low-income and Black and Latino people at greater risk for deadly encounters with police.

Many of these regressive fines and fees policies are imposed at the local level. When local governments choose to include fines and fees revenue in their budgets, they are also, in effect, choosing a policy that depends on both the occurrence of more crime, and the imposition of fees that are imposed at multiple stages throughout one’s journey through the courts.

It is not just community members that are harmed by fines and fees. Local governments that choose this revenue source lose money, time, and resources trying to collect blood from a stone. Evidence shows that in some cases the cost of collection for governments exceeds the amount owed.

So how can local governments untangle themselves from these counterproductive policies and protect their communities’ future? They can assess the impacts of fines and fees in their community — and choose from many proven pathways toward reform.

The policy guides below provide local leaders with a step-by-step process to:

  • Assess the fiscal and human impact of fines and fees
  • Engage key government and community stakeholders
  • Design and implement strategies to enact meaningful reforms

Each guide also includes proven examples of other jurisdictions that have implemented a specific reform on the road to end unjust fines and fees. Choose your guide to get started: 

Local Policy Guide: Ending Fees and Discharging Debt

Many jurisdictions are eliminating discretionary traffic and criminal legal fees and vacating debt after recognizing both permanent harms wrought on low-income communities and the fact that the outstanding debt is unlikely to ever be paid. Jurisdictions are also including budget provisions to backfill anticipated loss of revenue. Download this guide >

Local Policy Guide: Reforming Debt-Based License Suspensions at the Local Level

Acknowledging the devastating impacts of debt-based license suspensions and their counterproductive effect on public safety, police and district attorney’s offices have chosen to decline to cite, arrest, or charge those driving on a suspended license. Some have even developed comprehensive programs to restore licenses suspended due to debt. Download this guide >

Local Policy Guide: Making Jail Phone Calls Free and Eliminating Commissions and Kickbacks on Commissary Items

Government should never seek to profit from its incarcerated population. As such, many cities and counties are evaluating the high costs that incarcerated people are charged in order to communicate with their families and purchase basic necessities like toothpaste or soap. Recognizing the impossible sacrifices these costs force upon incarcerated people and their families, municipalities have started to provide free jail phone calls to incarcerated individuals and have eliminated surcharges, kickbacks, and commissions on commissary items in recent years. Download this guide >