Municipal Violations: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

In this video, John Oliver details the devastating impacts that low-income Americans suffer due to fines and fees and the involvement of private probation companies. He highlights the stories of three people who fell victim to a cycle of criminal justice debt not because of their unwillingness to make payments, but as a consequence of their inability to pay.

Key Findings
  • Fees tacked on by a state, city, or municipality can drive up the total price tag of a nominal fine to an exorbitant amount.
  • It is common for states and cities to charge late fees for delinquent payments (i.e. 30% in Illinois) and fees to enter into a payment plan (i.e. $100 in New Orleans). These costs are also known as poverty penalties, because they are only assessed when a defendant is too poor to afford the initial sum.
  • A piece of a news segment embedded in the video claims that “according to court records, eight towns rely on court fines and fees for more than 30 percent of their revenue. Calverton Park [Missouri] is at the 66 percent level.”
  • In some states, driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of fines and fees makes up the majority of all license suspensions. In particular, Oliver points out that 88% of Florida license suspensions in 2012 were for “failure to comply with summons or fines.”
  • Private probation companies don’t charge courts to collect on their behalf, but fund themselves by charging probationers fees for “collection services.” These companies allocate the money that defendants pay towards their collection fees first before applying the remainder, if there’s anything left, to a person’s fines.
  • Oliver argues that the amount a person is fined for a crime or code violation should be based on their ability to pay.