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Lawful Collection of Legal Financial Obligations: A Bench Card for Judges

The National Center for State Courts’ National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices has created a variety of tools to help courts reform their fines and fees practices, including this bench card. The bench card, which can be modified for state and local jurisdictions, advises judges on how to sanction indigent defendants for nonpayment of fines and fees without resorting to incarceration, outlines procedural protections for defendants who are unable to pay, and outlines standards for determining indigence.

You can read the bench card here. 

Key Provisions
  • Courts may only incarcerate a defendant for nonpayment of fines and fees if (1) the failure to pay was willful, or (2) if failure to pay was not willful and alternatives to incarceration “are not adequate to meet the State’s interest in punishment and deterrence.”
  • Courts must notify defendants when setting a hearing to determine ability to pay, and explain that they can request community service or a reduction of debt if they are unable to pay.
  • When determining ability to pay, courts should consider a wide variety of factors including income, living expenses, whether the defendant receives public assistance, amount of court debt owed, and whether payment would cause hardship.
  • Courts should consider alternative sanctions for defendants who are unable to pay: reduction of fines and fees, extension of time to pay, reasonable payment plans, credit for community service (taking into account defendant’s circumstances), credit for completion of relevant court-approved program, or waiver of fines and fees.
FFJC’s View

Incarceration should only be used a sanction for nonpayment of court debt if the nonpayment was willful.  There are always adequate alternatives to incarceration.

National Center for State Courts’ National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices
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