The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government

The Vera Institute of Justice released a series of research reports detailing the fines and fees levied by government agencies in Florida and  New York, the impact of fines and fees, and the amount of revenue counties, municipal governments and states collect. After analysis of multiple sources of state and local budget and revenue data, the authors concluded that for all the harm caused, revenue collected through fines and fees typically make up a small fraction of government budgets.

Key Findings: 

  • In 2016, 680,000 New Yorkers had their driver’s licenses suspended because they could not afford to pay fines and fees.
  • The typical total charge for driving with a suspended license in New York is $630, or 31 percent of the monthly income of someone making minimum wage. 
  • On average, the money collected from fines and fees in New York makes up 0.7 percent of city budgets and 0.2 percent of county budgets. 
  • 2 million of the 16 million drivers in Florida cannot legally drive because of unpaid court debt. 
  • Fines and fees from the justice system made up only 0.4 percent of total state resources, 0.9 percent of total county budgets, and 0.3 percent of the municipal budget in Florida. 

Principles for reform: 

  • Governments should eliminate all criminal legal fees and proactively ensure that all people with incomes below a threshold, such as the local living wage, are not financially harmed by fines. 
  • No one should face the loss of a driver’s license or other infringements on their civic life because of fines and fees.
  • Money collected from fines and fees should be used in ways that serve the people most negatively impacted by the criminal justice system.
  • Governments should provide clear and transparent data on the amounts of fines and fees assessed and collected and aggregated data on the demographics of the people who are charged fines and fees.

You can read the full text of the New York and Florida reports here and here.

Chris Mai and Maria Rafael
Vera Institute of Justice