POLICY

Colorado is intercepting federal stimulus checks for court debt. One resident, who lost her much-needed check to a decades-old misdemeanor, called the governor and her congressman to try and give them the message that paying debt collectors isn’t stimulating the economy.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Protecting wages and money deposited in a bank account from seizure by creditors is critical during the COVID-19 recession. Millions of Americans urgently need these stimulus checks to pay for rent, food, utilities, medicine, and other basic necessities; garnishing them is a threat to families’ livelihoods and public health. Read the National Consumer Law Center’s summary of state laws, regulations, executive orders, court orders, and guidance adopted since March 15, 2020 that provide additional protections for wages and cash in bank accounts.

POLICY

Due to the pandemic, Oklahoma courts have been shut down and not collecting enough money in fines and fees. As a result, the state legislature has announced that they do not plan to carry legislation on fines and fees this session, and will continue to rely on fines and fees to fund the courts. A 2019 report found in some Oklahoma courts, state appropriations accounted for just 10% of their operating costs and the rest came from collecting fines and fees.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

For all the harm caused by fines and fees, they typically make up only a small fraction of government budgets. Read Vera’s reports on the impact of fines and fees in New York and Florida and the amount government agencies actually collect.

POLICY

New York City’s 2020-21 budget includes a ticket blitz that’s expected to cost motorists some $42 million in the coming months.The NYPD will reassign 75 workers in its Traffic Enforcement Division to ticket-writing duties to counter the fiscal effects of the coronavirus crisis.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

When governments use predatory fines and fees to raise money, the result is a disproportionate tax on those who can least afford it. Learn more about No Price on Justice, New York’s campaign to eliminate predatory fees.

POLICY

The Bossier City Council adopted an ordinance amending the fines, fees, and costs for several criminal charges. Changes include increasing the penalty for simple assault from not more than $200 to $1,000. Thefts with a value less than $300 may be fined not more than $1,000, while the penalty for carrying an illegal weapon will now be a fine of not more than $500.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Criminal justice fines are harmful to people who cannot afford to pay them and compromise public safety because law enforcement resources are devoted to collection. Learn more about the disadvantages of the current criminal justice fine and fee systems of ten counties in Texas, Florida, and New Mexico and recommendations for creating a fairer system.

POLICY

Orange County officials tripled the fee charged to most people whose cars are impounded by police for unpaid fines and fees.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Towing cars to coerce payment is counterproductive. If people can’t afford to pay a parking ticket, how can they possibly afford a $144 impound fee? Without a car, people can’t get  to work to earn money to pay the fine or fee. 

Read more about the impact of towing for nonpayment of fines and fees and recommendations to improve the system.

POLICY

Nevada County: The Board of Supervisors has created new code violations to generate additional revenue.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Increasingly,  fines and penalties are being used to fill budget shortfalls, spiraling into huge debts, which can result in incarceration for those unable to pay. Learn more about the shift to this system of municipal fines, the effects on poor communities and communities of color, and recommendations for reform, such as removing low-level crime from municipal codes.

POLICY

The Maryland legislature introduced a bill requiring the Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) to suspend the driver’s license and registration of all vehicles in a person’s name if they fail to pay a money judgement from a motor vehicle insurer.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Read the American Legislative Exchange Council’s resolution encouraging state legislators to limit driver’s license suspension policies to conduct that involves dangerous driving. Join FFJC’s Free to Drive campaign to debt based driver’s license suspensions.

HALL OF FAME

In response the COVID-19 crisis, many jurisdictions have taken positive, first steps to reduce the harms of fines and fees, including discharging outstanding debts, repealing criminal legal fees and ending the cruel practice of suspending driver’s licenses on the basis of unpaid debt. These fines and fees reforms have and will continue to benefit millions of people around the nation — especially in low-income communities and communities of color.

Here are some of the most significant state and local reforms that have been enacted since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic:

POLICY

The city of Phoenix reached an agreement to write off all traffic debts 10 years or older and clear those suspensions. For debt incurred within the past decade, the city is offering a 50% discount through May 1 to drivers who still owe fines.

WHY IT WORKS

Traffic debt-based driver’s license suspensions make everyday life impossible. Without a license, many people are left unable to drive to work or care for their families. What’s more — suspending driver’s licenses because of debt often has a negative effect on businesses as people become unable to work and participate in their local economies. Watch this video on why driver’s license suspension laws make no sense.

POLICY

The Dane County Public Protection & Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended a resolution authorizing the immediate elimination of debt for fees and fines totaling $149,828. The resolution erases outstanding court fees and fines accrued by people incarcerated in the county jail, including fees for using another person’s phone minutes, unpaid electronic monitoring fees, copying fees and unpaid medical copays.

WHY IT WORKS

Time in jail can be economically destabilizing for individuals and families, leading to lost wages and lost support, while adding a new range of costs to support and stay connected to their incarcerated loved one. Read more about the burdensome costs of phone calls, commissary, and disciplinary tickets assessed by New York jails.

POLICY

In an emergency session to address the COVID-19 crisis, Oregon passed a bill to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees.

WHY IT WORKS

Read more about how debt-related driver’s license suspensions make everyday life impossible. See all the states that have ended the practice of debt-based driver’s license suspensions.

POLICY

Michigan becomes latest state to end debt-based license suspensions. Gov. Whitmer signed a package of criminal justice bills that includes reforms to end license suspensions and to reclassify many traffic misdemeanors as civil infractions.

WHY IT WORKS

In 2019, Michigan issued 365,965 license suspensions for failure to pay their fines and failure to appear in court, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. This policy reform will give thousands of Michiganders the freedom to live their lives without worrying they will be criminalized or jailed just because they can’t afford to pay fines and fees. Learn more about Michigan’s new policy reform and see other states that have passed reforms to end debt-based license suspensions on the Free to Drive maps.

POLICY

Governor Newsom proposed a budget packet that includes an allocation of $54.8 million over the next 5 years to backfill the loss of fine and fee revenue from ability to pay assessments for traffic and other infractions, moving the state away from its reliance on fine and fee revenue to fund its courts.

WHY IT WORKS

Fines and fees are inequitable and unreliable sources of funding. Read about how the pandemic has exposed pre-existing issues concerning the use of fine and fee revenue in North Carolina.

POLICY

The Contra Costa County Probation Department eliminated collect calling for youth detained in its juvenile halls.

WHY IT WORKS

Exorbitant phone call rates can create a barrier to maintaining the family ties critical for development and reducing recidivism for youth. Read the Prison Policy Initiative’s policy brief on prison and jail phone call fees and recommendations for reform.