Ending the Debt Trap: Strategies to Stop the Abuse of Court-Imposed Fines and Fees

Alexandra Bastien of PolicyLink describes how the imposition of criminal justice fines and fees disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income Americans. She cites data from studies that demonstrate that governments only recoup a small percentage of the fines and fees they assess, even as court debt exacerbates the wealth gap and racial disparities in the US. The text advances several specific policy reform recommendations as well as 10 broader recommendations geared toward defining the scope of the problem, ensuring fairness and proportionality, and restoring financial security to impacted communities.

You can read the full text here. 

Key Findings
  • Fines and fees have a disproportionate impact on low-income people and people of color.
  • Fines and fees undermine reentry.
  • Cities with high proportions of African Americans rely more heavily on revenue from fines and fees.
  • Over 20 states charge court-involved youth or their families fines and fees.
  • Fines and fees are ineffective as a revenue strategy. Since 2014, states such as Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington have been using ability to pay hearings or changing the criteria evaluated in these hearings to appropriately determine indigence, prevent people from being unlawfully jailed, and avoid suspending a person’s driver’s license because of their failure to pay.
  1. Perform a cost-benefit analysis on court-imposed fines and fees assessed against low-income defendants for civil and misdemeanor offenses.
  2. Place limitations on the ability of courts and police to use fines and fees to fill budget gaps.
  3. Eliminate court access fees.
  4. End driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment.
  5. Standardize court practices for determining ability to pay.
  6. Eliminate financial burdens placed on young people and their family members.
  7. Guarantee adequate legal representation, including free public defenders for indigent defendants.
  8. Provide easily accessible and flexible payment plans, and eliminate intimidating collection practices.
  9. Connect indigent families to financial empowerment programs.
  10. Institute a remediation program for those who have been unjustly harmed by previous practices.
Alexandra Bastien, PolicyLink