Best Practices: Reforming Fine & Fee Policies in the Criminal Justice System

The tough-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990 and anti-tax sentiments have led many state and local governments to shift the cost of the criminal justice systems from taxpayers to system-involved individuals. This reliance on criminal justice fines and fees to generate revenue created the potential for officials to prioritize revenue generation over the fair administration of justice.  This brief identifies steps counties can take to lessen their reliance on criminal justice fines and fees, the rationale behind them, and recent pressures on “user fees” to fund system services. It also provides best practices from five counties that have made comprehensive reforms to create more equitable, transparent, and sustainable systems. 

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Key Findings:

  • In general sessions of criminal courts in Tennessee, it could cost  $112 to over $300 in addition to the principal fine.
  • Before making reforms, it cost Alameda County $250k per year to collect $400K.
  • In 2019, Los Angeles County found that their Probation Department had a less than 10 percent collection rate for the $120.6 million assessed each year in the five preceding fiscal years.
  • San Francisco County ended driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic citations and eliminated all locally charged criminal justice administrative fees.
  • Alameda County eliminated juvenile justice administrative fees in July 2016 and later eliminated all adult fees for probation, public defender, and work release services in December 2018.
  • Los Angeles County eliminated all adult criminal justice fees under its discretion and forgave unpaid fees in February 2020.
  • Ramsey County, Minnesota, eliminated 11 fees for a mix of supervision, electronic monitoring, and patient health services in April 2020.
  • Davidson County, Tennessee, eliminated a $44 per day jail fee, and the Clerk of Court created a compliance division to ensure residents who are unable to pay fines are identified earlier in the process.

Best Practices Approach to Fines and Fees Reform

  • Identify relevant stakeholders, including individuals with direct experiences with the system, county financial leadership, public criminal justice sector representatives, local advocacy groups, and nonprofit organizations committed to criminal justice matters to join the reform process. 
  • Review all data and information collected regarding fines and fees in the system, documentation regarding ability to pay, financial records, socioeconomic information of individuals assessed fines and fees, and the cost to collect fines and fees. 
  • Decide on the changes to make, develop an implementation plan, and establish measurement and accountability expectations.
Paula R. Worthington
The University of Chicago Harris Public Policy