Step One to an Antiracist State Revenue Policy: Eliminate Criminal Justice Fees and Reform Fines


Fees fund half of the state courts’ budget in North Carolina.

Many state revenue policies are rooted in racist history and continue to worsen racial inequities and harm public safety. For example, the white supremacist group, the Redeemers, took political power post-slavery in the South and imposed fiscal policies including a wide range of fines on Black people to re-establish racial oppression. Convict leasing, a system where Black people who could not pay fines were forced to work without wages for white employers, existed well into the mid-20th century in the South. The funds raised by employers went to support courts, police, and other public services. Sharp reduction of federal funding for state and local courts along with the Great Recession that caused decreases in income and consumption led to lower-income and sales tax revenue for states. Current policies make taxation difficult for states and local governments, thus shifting to criminal justice fees to fund courts and other public services. This report outlines this country’s racist revenue policies and demonstrates how criminal fees fall heavily on people of color and low-income communities, worsening racial and economic disparities. 

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Nine out of ten states have regressive tax systems; in Washington, the lowest-income households pay 17.8 percent of their income in taxes, while the highest fifth pays 3 percent.
  • Cities, towns, and counties with the highest percentage of Black and low-income residents are charged higher fines and fees than the state average in Virginia.
  • Additional fees and late charges for an improper U-turn in Virginia can cost six times the original fine.
  • Sanctions for inability to pay fines include late fees, interest, driver’s license suspension, and imprisonment.
  • Many states impose mandatory fines and fees regardless of the offense and ability to pay, removing discretion from judges to adjust or waive charges for low-income individuals. 


  • States and localities should eliminate criminal justice fees and base fines on the ability to pay.
  • Shift revenue sources of the justice system from those caught in the system to less harmful revenue sources like raising personal income taxes or corporate income taxes.
  • Reform or repeal restrictions on local governments’ revenue raising abilities.
  • Decriminalize minor traffic violations.
  • Remove the use of bench warrants and arrest as a collection tool.
Cortney Sanders and Michael Leachman
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities