Assessments and Surcharges: A 50-State Survey of Supplemental Fees

Examining statutes and rules from all 50 states and D.C, this new report uncovers a system of hidden taxes that are assessed in nearly every criminal, traffic or local ordinance case. They fund not only the justice system, but other government programs — ranging from autism research to independent living programs to state and municipal general funds. Whether they are called administrative assessments, surcharges, court costs, privilege taxes, docket fees, or something else, the one thing these fees have in common is that they are imposed in nearly every criminal, traffic, or local ordinance case — regardless of the offense, sentence, or specific circumstance of the particular case. The report calls them “assessments and surcharges.”

Judges are typically required to impose assessments and surcharges without any consideration of whether a person has the ability to pay. People who can’tafford fees are subjected to punishments that trap them in a cycle of poverty and punishment: incarceration, prolonged or indefinite supervision, driver’s license suspension, and additional fees. Communities of color and low-income communities suffer the most, as state and local governments attempt to extract billions of dollars from individuals and their families. Meanwhile, for courts or other government programs dependent on the revenue created by these assessments and surcharges, the lack of reliable collections can leave them with unstable budgets.

Key Findings:

48 states and DC imposed one or more assessments and surcharges on people simply for being in criminal, municipal, or traffic courts.

  • 32 states have statutes that automatically impose a fee that directly benefits court operations, either providing revenue to a specific judicial fund or a general court operating account.
  • 19 states have statutes imposing a fee that raises revenue for a state or county general fund, at least in part.
  • 32 states and DC have a mandatory fee that benefits a victims’ compensation fund, regardless of whether the case involves a victim. Depending on the jurisdiction, these fees can go as high as $10,000 per offense, and are imposed even if victim  restitution is also ordered in a case.
  • 29 states impose a fee to fund government programs, services, or agencies unrelated to the justice system.
    • Examples of such government programs include public financing of legislators’ campaigns, a volunteer ambulance fund, local law libraries, independent living programs, autism treatment and research, sheriff pension funds, civil legal services, and even a law enforcement officer hall of fame.
    • These also include justice-related fees that are charged against all defendants, even if the program had no nexus to the defendant’s case. Examples of such fees charged in some states against everyone — even if not applicable in their individual case — include assessments or surcharges for DNA database maintenance, drug education programs, community corrections or county jail fees, police academies or police training, and a death penalty prosecution fund.

Only 2 states do not have statutes imposing any universally mandatory assessment or surcharge.

  • Although Idaho has several different fees that may be imposed under certain circumstances or for select offenses, we found no statutory fee universally applicable to all cases.
  • Oregon eliminated its “unitary assessment” in 2012. Now all fees imposed at or after sentencing are dependent on factors other than mere court involvement.

Download and read Assessments and Surcharges: A 50-State Survey of Supplemental Fees