Local Policy Guide: Fee Elimination and Debt Relief

Across the country, the criminal legal system and traffic courts impose fees on individuals to fund the justice system and other government operations.These fees include penalties, surcharges, assessments, and other costs that bear no relation to punishment for an offense or to public safety. Fees are often unrelated to one’s conviction and may be assessed throughout an individual’s involvement with the criminal legal system from pre-trial to post-conviction. Even those who are not convicted or have their cases dismissed may be required to pay fees.

Because fees are often imposed without consideration of an individual’s ability to pay, jurisdictions end up with extremely low collection rates, while individuals end up saddled with exorbitant debt. These individuals facing court debt are often forced to choose between making payments and paying for basic necessities. Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by fee assessments.

The types of fees and the amounts assessed in a particular case vary by jurisdiction, but common examples include monthly probation fees, electronic or ankle monitor fees, booking fees, incarceration fees and collection fees. Most states and counties also still authorize courts and other agencies to charge youth and their families a litany of costs in the juvenile justice system. As many youth and families cannot afford to pay them, much of the collected revenue goes toward the costs to collect.

Many jurisdictions are eliminating discretionary traffic and criminal legal fees and vacating debt after recognizing both permanent harms wrought on low-income communities and the fact that the outstanding debt is unlikely to ever be paid. Jurisdictions are also including budget provisions to backfill anticipated loss of revenue.

This guide will provide local leaders with a step-by-step process for eliminating fees at the local level via three pathways:

  • Local ordinances and budgetary processes
  • Court orders, rules of procedures, and fee waivers
  • Debt Relief

This local policy guide includes crucial data points that your team should collect and track, questions to guide stakeholder and community engagement, and guidelines for developing an implementing your campaign strategy.

Ready to get started? Download your guide here.

Have questions about how you can pursue local fine and fee reform as part of our Cities and Counties initiative? Email