As 2024 sessions start to rev up, now is the time for fines and fees reform advocates to take stock of the vast and wide-reaching number of state and local policy changes that advocates achieved last year. Reviewing these reforms now can inspire both policymakers and advocates to continue to work toward undoing the myriad of harms related to fines and fees. Below you will find our latest summary of the legislation related to fines and fees that was introduced during 2023 state legislative sessions.
Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspensions Reforms
In 2023, the Free to Drive campaign reached a significant milestone with half of all U.S. states now having passed legislation to eliminate or significantly curb debt-based suspensions. Notably, the states that have passed legislation span the political spectrum, from bright blue states like New York and California to deep red states like Texas and Mississippi. Here are the major successes in 2023:
New Mexico enacted SB 47, which eliminates driver’s license suspensions on the basis of both failure to pay fines and fees and failure to appear in court, and provides for automatic reinstatement of suspended licenses. New Mexico’s bill provided some of the most comprehensive relief in any legislation related to debt-based suspensions passed to date.
Vermont’s HB 53 also ended license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines. While the state had already limited suspensions to 30 days, a person was required to pay a reinstatement fee to lift the suspension meaning the suspension was difficult to lift for people unable to pay the fee.
Minnesota’s legislature passed HF 490, as a part of a transportation omnibus bill (HF 2887), which made a person’s driver’s license that was suspended for any combination of failure-to-pay, failure-to-appear, or driving on a suspended license, eligible for reinstatement without requiring the payment of fines/fees or appearance in court. Note: the person does need to pay a $20 reinstatement fee in order to have their license reinstated.
States that introduced legislation related to curbing debt-based license restrictions
Legislators introduced bills that would end at least some category of debt-based suspensions in Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Many of these bills received hearings and several are still alive in legislatures with sessions that carry over from 2023 to 2024, including Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Ohio. For example, North Carolina’s HB 888 would eliminate all suspensions for failure to pay and failure to appear and reinstate the more than 1 million licenses currently suspended in the states. Illinois’s HB 277, which passed the House but not the Senate yet, would eliminate suspensions for failure to appear; Illinois has already passed legislation to eliminate suspensions for failure to pay fines.
Federal support for ending debt-based license suspension
Notably, Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), along with 11 bipartisan co-sponsors, also reintroduced the federal Driving for Opportunity Act (S. 2313) in the U.S. Senate this year. This legislation, which was previously introduced in the 116th and 117th Congresses as well, would provide federal grants to states that end debt-based suspensions to assist with any implementation costs and to incentivize states to repeal these counterproductive laws.
Significant reform, but not full repeal
Other states passed significant reforms this year, though they did not fully repeal debt-based suspensions. Alabama’s SB 154, for example, provides that appearing in court clears any failure-to-appear suspension. It also limits suspensions for failure to pay a fine, fee, or court costs to instances where an individual has missed more than one post-adjudication hearing or three or more installment payments. Kansas’s HB 2216 removes mandatory imprisonment as a consequence for driving while one’s license is suspended, if the underlying suspension was for failure to pay fines.
On our radar
Unfortunately, there were also bills filed in a few states – Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia – that sought to resume some debt-related driving restrictions and roll back recent state reforms. In Montana, SB 297 would have resumed license suspensions for nonpayments of fines in justice, municipal, and city courts. In West Virginia, HB 2041 would have authorized municipal courts to request the suspension of a driver’s license of a person who failed to follow a payment plan. With opposition from both the right and the left, none of these bills made it out of committee.
Fee Elimination Reforms
In 2022, FFJC launched our End Justice Fees Campaign to support and elevate reform efforts to eliminate the countless fees assessed on a person moving through the justice system. n 2023, many states passed or considered legislation to eliminate various categories of fees.
New Mexico legislature passed HB 139 eliminating all post-adjudication fees for state courts, state mandated post-adjudication fees for municipal courts, and all bench warrant fees, which were $100 per warrant.
Washington’s HB 1169 eliminates a $100 DNA database fee and provides that the court may not impose a mandatory crime victim penalty assessment ($250 for misdemeanors and $500 for felonies) on adults who are indigent.
New Jersey’s S3771 eliminates fees, liens, and warrants associated with state public defender services. Notably, the Arizona legislature passed a resolution, which states the legislature’s commitment to promoting evidence-based law enforcement strategies, including ending reliance on fines, fees and forfeitures to balance police budgets.
Nevada’s SB 416 eliminated commissary markups, room and board fees, and medical co-pays for incarcerated individuals.
Colorado’s HB 23-1133, Massachusetts’ H. 4052 and Minnesota’s budget both allowed for free voice communication in all adult and youth facilities, bringing the total number of states that provide free phone calls to people who are incarcerated to five.
States that introduced legislation to eliminate fees
Many other state legislatures considered legislation that ultimately did not succeed, but would have eliminated various categories of fees, including Arkansas (payment plan fees), Arizona (fees for hygiene products), Ohio (driver’s license reinstatement fees), Oklahoma (various court costs and fees including prosecution fees and supervision fees), and Virginia (commissary markups and communications fees), signaling a nationwide push to eliminate fees within the criminal legal system. In New York, SB 313/AB 4183 would have eliminated court surcharges and fees, as well as probation surcharges and fees. A bill was also filed in Maryland that would have appropriated $7,000,000 in the annual budget to offset fees revenue for the state’s victim compensation fund. In Louisiana, legislation was filed that would award funding to courts contingent upon them eliminating fees. Bills were also introduced in Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island that would have ended prison phone call fees, but failed to pass.
Though legislation to create new fees in the system was not widespread, there were several bills that were introduced and a few that passed. For example, Montana enacted HB 541 to provide for the accrual of interest on fines and restitution after 6 months. Indiana increased its jury fees from $2 to $6. Other bills to increase or create new fees were filed – but did not pass – in states including Nebraska (increase public defense fee from $3 to $8), Missouri (increase criminal court surcharge by $10), New Jersey ($100 assessment on people convicted of certain sex offenses), New York (new medical co-pay of $7 in correctional facilities), and North Dakota (increasing traffic fees).
Juvenile Justice Fines and Fees Reforms
Despite the fact that youth have no income and are therefore unable to pay fines or fees, they are routinely assessed against youth in the juvenile justice system and their families. Inability to pay fines and fees may result in more punitive measures that can multiply financial obligations, like contempt of court and probation violations. The Debt Free Justice campaign has led a national movement to eliminate fines and fees assessed against youth with wins in more than a dozen states. That success continued in 2023, with numerous states passing laws that will prevent young people and their families from spiraling into debt.
Several states passed laws to eliminate all or most fees assessed against youth and their families in the juvenile system, including Arizona’s SB 1197, Montana’s HB 500, Illinois’ SB 1463, Michigan’s HB 4637, HB 4636, and HB 4635.
Texas had already eliminated many youth fees in 2021 and with the passage of SB 1612 this year, repealed the remaining fees assessed against youth in the juvenile justice system.
Indiana’s HB 1493 also eliminated certain fees including juvenile public defender fees and provided that no fees will be assessed against families unless there is an affirmative finding of their ability to pay.
States that introduced legislation to end juvenile fines and fees
There were bills introduced in numerous other states that would have eliminated or limited juvenile justice fines and fees but that did not pass this year: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming
Ability to Pay & Other Notable Bills
Several bills passed in 2023 to address an individual’s inability to pay a fine or fee, indicating a growing recognition of the immense financial burden brought on by fines and fees debt.
Oklahoma’s HB 2259 revises provisions related to the payment of court-imposed financial obligations by, for instance, allowing a court to determine someone’s ability to pay, creating presumptions that individuals who meet certain criteria are unable to pay, and adjusting their financial obligation accordingly.
Tennessee SB 13 establishes that once someone is released from incarceration, they do not need to pay any fines for six months following their release. Similar legislation to the Tennessee grace period bill was introduced but failed to pass in Texas and Missouri.
West Virginia’s SB 191 was enacted establishing that someone cannot be denied access to deferred adjudication because of inability to pay court costs.
Other bills were considered but did not pass. In New Mexico, HB 138 would have required ability to pay assessments and established income-based limits on the amount people can be ordered to pay, along with expanding the ways in which fines and fees can be resolved. Similarly, in Nevada, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania legislation that would have required ability to pay assessments and implemented standards for inability to pay was filed but failed to pass. Kansas also considered legislation that provided for payment plans and waiver of fines and costs in traffic cases for those who are unable to pay.
Legislation Pertaining to Enforcement of Non-payment of Fines
Other states considered legislation to address the enforcement consequences of nonpayment of fines. In California, a bill passed the General Assembly and is still pending in the Senate that would have ended the issuance of warrants for nonpayment of traffic infraction fines. Another California bill that passed the General Assembly would end the towing of vehicles for nonpayment of traffic tickets. Legislation in Missouri passed as part of a public safety omnibus bill that would have ended warrants for not paying citations for equipment violations, but the Governor vetoed the bill for reasons unrelated to that provision. Legislation was also filed in New Jersey that would have prohibited the issuance of warrants for nonpayment of fines related to non-moving violations.
Legislation Requiring States to Study Impact of Fines and Fees
Nevada SB 103 requires a review of the state’s entire misdemeanor system by the Nevada Sentencing Commission over the next two years with the intention of restructuring the entire system by decriminalizing or legalizing crimes and offenses currently charged as misdemeanors.
Arkansas’ HB 1245 requires the legislature to study the statutory funding of the court system and of all court costs, fines, and fees.
North Dakota’s SB 2278 requires that legislative management consider studying laws and procedures related to municipal courts, including the reporting on the collection of fines and fees.
Hawaii SR 202 requests that the Hawaii State Judiciary collect data on the assessment of fines, fees, costs, and restitution against youth, including the average amount charged over the last five years. Another bill requiring study of fines and fees was considered in Maryland but failed to pass.
Automatic Traffic Enforcement
In recent years, there has been a rapid expansion of automatic traffic enforcement (ATE) mechanisms, such as red light cameras and speed cameras, to enforce traffic violations. The rapid proliferation of ATE is generating tremendous revenue for governments; Washington DC, for example, recently rolled out a plan to install 342 more ATE cameras, providing an estimated $580 million in revenue to address the city’s budget shortfall. While the need to improve traffic safety is legitimate, fine-based ATE is neither the most effective, nor the most equitable way to achieve it. ATE mechanisms disproportionately harm Black, Latino, and low-income drivers, and vastly increase the number of fines that are assessed against people overall. Those who lack the ability to readily pay the ATE fines face additional penalties and deeper criminal legal system involvement, solely due to their lack of financial resources.
Dozens of bills were filed related to the authorization and expansion of ATE programs and technology across the country this year. While several states considered bills that would limit the extent that ATE technologies can operate within states, more considered and passed legislation to expand ATE. States that enacted limits on ATE included Illinois, which passed HB 3903 preventing contractors of ATE technology from making political contributions to state, municipal, or county officials. The Arizona legislature sent SB 1234 to the Governor’s desk, but it was vetoed. That bill would have prohibited local authorities or state agencies from using a photo enforcement system to identify violators of state or local traffic or speeding laws. In Georgia, the House passed a bill that would have dramatically reduced fines for violations detected by school bus cameras, but the bill did not pass the Senate. New Jersey S 460 would have protected New Jersey residents from ATE in other states; the state does not allow ATE, and the bill would forbid the Department of Motor Vehicles from sharing driver info with other states for the purposes of enforcing ATE tickets. Iowa, Georgia, and Oklahoma also considered legislation to limit the reach of ATE, but these bills did not advance.
On the other hand, many states passed legislation to expand the use of ATE. For example, California passed AB 645 to establish an ATE pilot program in its largest counties. Connecticut HB 5917 authorizes municipalities to use red-light cameras and speed cameras. Washington SB 5272 and Indiana HB 1015 authorize speed camera ticketing mechanisms in highway work zones. Other bills passed this session that authorized new ATE included Florida HB 657 (speed cameras in school zones), Delaware HB 94 (speed cameras in certain residential districts), and New York AB 7043 (speed cameras in school zones in Albany).
States across the country and the political spectrum made considerable progress on fines and fees reform in 2023, and still our work is just beginning. More than half of states still allow some type of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay and/or failure to appear in court. Fees continue to be imposed at virtually every stage of the process, overwhelmingly assessed against people who lack the ability to pay them. Courts across the country still criminally sanction children and families for the inability to pay fees, and the implementation of automatic traffic enforcement technology, without consideration of the impact of monetary sanctions and community harms, is on the rise.
Are you or your organization working to eliminate fees in justice, end debt-based license suspensions, or another related reform goal? The Fines and Fees Justice Center works with community leaders, researchers, advocates, and policymakers to drive fines and fees reform at the state and local level. We advise and collaborate with other nonprofit organizations and advocates who are leading similar charges across the country. We collect and disseminate everything we can find about fines and fees reform in our Clearinghouse. Together, our goal is to drive and sustain meaningful fines and fees reform around the country.