Proportionate Financial Sanctions: Policy Prescriptions for Judicial Reform

In this report, the Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP) at Harvard Law School proposes a framework where courts would impose means-adjusted fines as a proportionate sentence for an offense. The authors assert that by adopting the proposed recommendations, courts can ease or prevent the worst harms that excessive financial sanctions create for poor people without waiting for legislative reforms. The report also offers recommendations as a roadmap for statewide judicial policymakers, judges, advocates, community members to make the imposition and collection of fines and fees more equitable.  

You can read the full text of the report here

Key Findings
  • Courts in the United States already conduct nearly identical inquiries to ascertain eligibility for child support, court-appointed counsel, and benefits as German judges to determine monetary sanctions under their day fines system.
  • Tailoring fines to people’s financial means does not insulate people from punishment.
  • Policy analysts in Texas concluded that recent reforms to state law, including requiring ability-to-pay determinations at sentencing, have resulted in a decrease in the use of warrants for nonpayment.
  • The use of different terms and standards for indicating when judges can waive fines and fees, can make it difficult for judges to determine which financial sanctions can and should be waived. 
  • Since researchers estimate that the average value of each volunteer hour performed in the United States is $25-43; allowing repayment of court debt through community service with a conversion rate set at only the national minimum wage of $7.25 significantly undervalues the work performed.
  • Eliminate all revenue-raising fees and surcharges
  • Set fines at a level people can afford by implementing day fines,conduct meaningful ability to pay determinations and tailor fine amounts accordingly 
  • Consider alternatives to payment that are proportionate, such as community service that takes work schedules and childcare into account
  • Decouple probation and monitoring of fine payment
  • Facilitate open communication between the court and people who owe money to the court
  • Eliminate warrants for nonpayment or nonappearance 
  • Review cases frequently with an eye toward reducing or waiving unpaid fines
  • Ensure that enforcement mechanisms are proportionate to the act of nonpayment, eliminate driver’s license suspensions and incarceration as sanctions for nonpayment,   and limit the use of civil debt collection mechanisms
Sharon Brett and Mitali Nagrecha 
Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School