National Fines & Fees Reform Movement Charts Course for More Victories in 2024

When this organization started six years ago we could never have predicted the breadth and pace of fines and fees reform that would unfold across the nation. Since 2018, the country has gone from just a handful of states that did not suspend licenses for unpaid fines and fees to now 25 states plus D.C. that have ended or curbed the cruel practice of debt-based license suspensions

As lawmakers roll back these disproportionate and counterproductive collections practices imposed on those who cannot pay off court debt, they are also recognizing the serious harms involved in using the justice system as a vehicle to fund government. As a result, dozens of state and local jurisdictions are moving to eliminate the existence of justice fees. Nearly half the country has eliminated some fees at either the state or local level, leading us to launch our second national campaign, End Justice Fees.

This past year alone we saw New Mexico pass groundbreaking fee-elimination and driver’s license suspension reform laws. Nevada eliminated medical co-pays, room and board fees, curbed commissary markups for people who are incarcerated. New Jersey eliminated fees charged for state public defenders, Washington eliminated a $100 DNA database fee and prohibited courts from imposing a previously mandatory crime victim penalty assessment on people who are indigent. Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado all enacted laws to eliminate prison phone call fees. Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Montana, Texas all passed legislation to roll back juvenile fines and fees.

And still, our work is just beginning. Our national team has been harnessing the learnings and expertise derived from FFJC’s work in New Mexico, Nevada, Florida, and New York, and expanding it into adaptable models for reform that can be used by any state or jurisdiction that is working to change fines and fees policies.

This year marked a milestone in the evolution of our national strategy, as we held the first-ever Fines and Fees Advocacy Summit. This event brought together advocates from over a dozen key states for a three-day day event designed to review the latest research and data, share campaign strategies and forge new connections. Here, our Deputy Executive Director, Priya Sarathy Jones shares insights about FFJC’s robust national reform strategy and how we are revving up for more 2024 victories.

The implementation and collection of fines and fees is largely a state and local issue. How can the movement benefit from a larger, collective national strategy?

FFJC has an ‘on-the-ground’ presence in four focus states, where we work to directly enact reform at the state and local levels. In doing this work, we realized it is absolutely crucial that other state campaigns and advocates have access to the same wealth of information, research, and expertise across relevant subject areas to drive reform. Given the breadth of experience across FFJC, we are uniquely positioned to provide that support across the country.

Previously, we worked more reactively — responding to states with an existing interest in pursuing reform by providing technical and strategic assistance. Now, we are shifting that model to work in closer collaboration with a core group of states. This closer engagement means we are able to help build on a state and/or locality’s capacity to pursue and institutionalize larger-scale reforms, including eliminating the fees that are assessed at every stage of the system and ending the harmful consequences of nonpayment of fines and fees, like driver’s license suspensions.

As part of the national coalition-building strategy, FFJC has identified target states for reform? How do you work with these states?

Many states already have the data and evidence to make the case for reform; they have a viable political climate, they may even have a track record of other related initiatives — and still it can be extremely difficult to advance these reforms.

What we’re trying to do is help advocates establish the fundamental elements required to push reform in their jurisdictions. We also want to ensure they have the tools and resources they need to navigate any hurdles or potential pushback they might face along the way. The big benefit we can provide them is this wide aerial view of what’s worked and what hasn’t in other states so they can use as much information as possible to choose the right pathway for them.

Identifying states as “target” states allows us to intentionally focus our efforts on states that are ripe for reform. Some of our target states already have a track record of successful fines and fees reform. In these states, we are working to provide advocates  the research and technical support to build on that foundation and achieve additional legislative and policy change.

In other target states, we are just beginning to build the infrastructure for reform, including growing our relationships with state advocates and leaders, developing a better understanding of the political landscape and undertaking research to determine the impact of fines and fees in those states. Relationship-building is one of the primary reasons we decided to launch this new strategy with an in-person summit. Because if there were to be a ‘secret ingredient’ to determining whether reform is possible within a state, it would be “consistency and availability of resources and support”. This is where we can tip the scales — and this is what we want to provide to our target states. FFJC together with advocates across the nation are willing and ready to come to the table year after year in order to keep the movement going. That’s what makes us strong.

What did you want advocates to take away from the first Fine and Fees Advocacy Summit?

The overarching goal of the summit was to have participants leave feeling more dedicated, motivated and knowledgeable about advancing reform with fines and fees within their own individual states. The Summit was an intensive 3-day working session, which provided opportunities for in-depth learning on fines and fees policy, together with discussions on effective strategy and learnings from recent statewide victories.

As we continue our work on building a roadmap for reform that can be adapted and applied to specific states, we need to understand the unique qualities and challenges found in each state. The Summit gave us the opportunity to have those conversations and integrate what we learned into our national strategy and the next push for reform. Our relationships with state advocacy groups and national organizations are  key to advancing legislative reforms.

How has the Summit influenced or inspired actions?

During the Summit, participants took the information that had been shared about research, organizing, and more, and began to develop advocacy strategies to advance their own state-specific reform goals. These goals vary state to state but may include eliminating justice fees, such as counsel fees or carceral fees, or ending debt-based driver’s license suspensions. After leaving the Summit, participants have begun to further expand on those strategic plans and put them into action with renewed dedication towards fines and fees reform.

What is clear coming out of the Summit is that a consistent, multi-year commitment to fines and fees reform by both FFJC and state and local advocates is critical to victory — and we are so grateful to be in this fight with so many people who are dedicated to that aim. Despite the differences in background, approach and political ideology that we bring to the table, we are all united under a single banner— poverty is not a crime. No one should ever be arrested, jailed, and/or have their lives destabilized because they could not afford to pay a fine or fee. A system meant for justice should never be used for the pursuit of revenue. Together we are working to codify that belief into meaningful policy across the nation.