Introduction

COVID-19 Makes Fines and Fees Reform is More Urgent Than Ever

Beginning in the 1980s, state and local governments increased the number or amount of fines and fees imposed on people convicted of traffic and municipal code violations, misdemeanors and felonies, to fund government. The Great Recession accelerated that trend, as most jurisdictions introduced new criminal justice fines and fees, increased the amount charged for fines and fees, and budgeted to collect additional revenue from fines and fees.

Increasing fines and fees was a disaster. Millions of people cannot afford to pay court debt and suffer the consequences of draconian collection practices like driver’s license suspensions, towing and impounding of vehicles, wage garnishment, and even incarceration. Often, the cost of collections exceeds the amount of revenue collected.

The COVID-19 crisis has dramatically underscored this policy failure. Black, Latinx, and low-income people — who disproportionately suffer the health and economic impacts of the pandemic — are also most likely to suffer the harms of fines and fees policies.

Jump to our policy recommendations below to see how states and localities can start to address the immediate economic harms caused by fines and fees during the pandemic.

What are fines and fees?

What are fines and fees?

Fines are monetary sanctions imposed as punishment for violating the law. Fees are the costs, assessments, and surcharges imposed to access services or fund the justice system or other government services.

Policy Recommendations

Policy Recommendations

While the ultimate goal of FFJC’s fine and fee reform efforts is to abolish fees and ensure fines are equitably imposed, the following policy recommendations offer interim strategies to address the immediate economic harms caused by fines and fees during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are independent of our recommendations to address fines and fees on a permanent basis and are based on the authority courts and governments currently possess, without the need for statutory or legislative changes. Legislatures, however, can and should act to address fines and fees during the COVID-19 crisis.

State and local government and/or courts should:

  1. Discharge all outstanding fines, fees and court debt.
  2.  Where full discharge is not yet feasible, state and local jurisdictions and courts should immediately implement the following policies until 180 days after the end of the State of Emergency within their jurisdictions and until local unemployment levels are below 8% overall, and within each community of color:
    • Suspend the collection of all court debt including but not limited to: payments due under payment plans; payments associated with parole and probation; wage garnishment; property liens; off-sets of tax refunds, unemployment insurance and other public benefits, especially those related to housing
    • Cease issuing and enforcing warrants for unpaid fines and fees or for failure to appear at a hearing addressing unpaid fines and fees.
    • Stop sending delinquent cases to private collection companies and direct private collection companies to stop all collection efforts.
    • Stop imposing penalties for late or missed payments of fines, fees and court debt.
    • Suspend interest on unpaid fines, fees and court debt. Stop sending delinquent cases to private collection companies, and direct private collection companies and probation and parole officers to stop all collection efforts.
    • Stop imposing penalties for late or missed payments of fines, fees and court debt.
    • Suspend interest on unpaid fines, fees and court debt.
  3. Refuse to add any new criminal justice fines and fees or increase the dollar amount of any existing fines and fees;
  4. Refuse to budget for the collection of additional revenue from existing categories of fines and fees.
  5. Waive or reduce any fines or fees imposed, recognizing people’s precarious financial circumstances.
  6. End driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees and failure to appear for a court hearing. Reinstate driver’s licenses that have been suspended for non-safety reasons. Law enforcement officers should release individuals with a warning who are driving on a suspended license where the reason for the suspension is not related to public safety.
  7. Local governments should stop issuing parking tickets and municipal code violations that do not impact public safety, and stop booting, towing and impounding vehicles for unpaid fines and fees.
  8. Jurisdictions should proactively and widely communicate any changes made in their fines and fees policies.
  9. Jurisdictions should enact equitable revenue solutions that do not disproportionately impact communities of color and low income communities.

For People in the Criminal Legal System:

For People in the Criminal Legal System:

  1. Waive co-pays for medical visits of people in custody.
  2. Provide free liquid soap, hand sanitizer, and other disinfecting products to people in custody.
  3. Provided free, easily accessible phone and email communication to people who are incarcerated.
  4. Release any individuals incarcerated for outstanding fines and fees. End the revocation and extension of parole, probation or any other community supervision for failure to pay fines and fees or for other technical violations.