First Steps Toward Equitable Fines and Fees Practices: Policy Guidance on Ability-to-Pay Assessments, Payment Plans, and Community Service

This resource provides evidence-based guidance for jurisdictions that currently have or are looking to implement ability to pay assessments, payment plans, and/or community service as an alternative to fines, fees, or other monetary sanctions.  By promulgating this guidance, the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) recognizes that in some jurisdictions interim measures like these have been or will be adopted – and that to reduce harm to individuals, their families and communities, policy guidance is necessary and helpful.

This guidance is most effective when all three of these policies are adopted and implemented in unison. Together, these policies (1) ensure fairness, (2) are consistent with constitutional requirements for the assessment of financial sanctions in the criminal legal system, and (3) improve court efficiency and make it less costly for jurisdictions to monitor debt payment.

FFJC views the three policies addressed in this publication as first steps — not comprehensive  solutions — toward eliminating government reliance on fines and fees. FFJC advocates for the elimination of all fees imposed in the criminal legal system and for the imposition of fines only in cases when the sentence does not include a term of incarceration or supervision. If imposed, however, fines should be both tailored to the offense and proportionate to an individual’s financial circumstances. No fines or fees should ever be assessed in juvenile cases.

Read and download the complete policy guidance report here.

Policies covered in this report:

Ability-to-Pay Assessments
An ability-to-pay assessment is the evaluation of an individual’s ability to pay a fine, fee or other monetary sanction. These assessments ensure that fines are proportionate and offer an interim solution for jurisdictions that have not yet eliminated all of their fees.

Payment Plans
After a court conducts an ability-to-pay assessment, and appropriately waives and or reduces the amount owed, reasonable payment plans are necessary to ensure that people can meet their own needs, as well as the needs of their families, while paying off their court debt. Payment plans are also useful in jurisdictions that lack the authority to consider an individual’s ability to pay.

Community Service
Community service offers individuals with an alternative to monetary sanctions that better meets the community’s interest in public safety and accountability. When chosen by the defendant, assigned in consideration of an individual’s family, work, or education obligations, credited at a reasonable amount, and defined broadly, community service may offer an appropriate way to comply with monetary sanctions.