POLICY

Wichita Falls Municipal Court did not actively serve arrest warrants in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In July 2021, the City Marshal was informed by the Wichita County Sheriff that the jail can once again accept individuals arrested for outstanding city warrants. An amnesty period to allow individuals extra time to pay their fines or contact the Municipal Court to make other arrangements and avoid arrest will be granted from Sunday, August 1 to Sunday, August 15. Read more.

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

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

The City Council wants to raise money for their police department by adding a surcharge to traffic fines. The Council plans to achieve this by passing a resolution asking the state Legislature to increase traffic fines and share the money with the county where the infraction occurred. In the 90s, the city tried to do the same by passing an ordinance charging a $250 user fee for anyone  convicted in Honolulu, but the supreme court found that the charge was a tax and struck it down.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Surcharges shift the burden of funding a public service onto people and communities who are disproportionately and unfairly targeted for criminal punishment, and the revenue often goes into general funds unrelated to the underlying offense. Read more about mandatory surcharges in New York and how the state’s racist fee system punishes poverty.

 

POLICY

Senators voted 35-5 to give first-round approval to an amended version of LB17 that would double a court fee charged to support the judges retirement fund. The fee would increase from $6 per case to $8 by July 1, then continue increasing until it reached $12 in 2025.

WHY THIS POLICY DOESN’T WORK

Using fee and fine revenues to fund the judiciary can create perverse incentives and potentially distort the fair administration of justice. Read the findings from the Brennan Center’s report on criminal justice fines and fees as an unreliable and inefficient source of court and government funding.

 

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

A Dane County Board subcommittee approved a report that includes recommendations aimed at reducing or eliminating the financial burdens of fines and fees on low income individuals and people of color. The recommendations include developing a uniform fee waiver application, waiving fines and setting up payment plans. Following the approval, board members must translate the recommendations into policies and budget amendments.

WHY IT WORKS

After determining an individual’s ability to pay and waiving or reducing fines, and fees, courts should permit individuals to enroll in a payment plan. Read FFJC’s step by step guidance on conducting ability to pay assessments and implementing payment plans.

 

POLICY

Illinois: For the second year in a row, low-income residents with outstanding fines won’t have money taken from their state income tax returns. Last year, due to the moratorium, $18 million in overdue fines and fees that would have otherwise been automatically taken out of residents’ tax refunds or other state-provided funding, was not collected.

WHY IT WORKS

Recent research shows that when struggling families were given cash payments spent the money on basic needs, with food representing the largest category of spending. Garnishing tax rebates and/or stimulus checks to pay for outstanding fines and fees will only widen that already vast divide between those who were able to make it out of the pandemic and those who were left behind.

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

Mayor Kennedy’s proposed spending plan would eliminate a $1 surcharge for items purchased at the jail commissary and allow incarcerated people 15 minutes of free phone time a day. The proposed budget also includes an allocation of nearly $2.2 million for up to one hour of free teleconference visits a week for inmates.

WHY IT WORKS

Limited communication with family and loved ones can lead to poor mental health, complicate efforts to post bail or build a defense, and increase the likelihood of recidivism after release. Read the Prison Policy Institute’s overview of prison and jail phone call fees and recommendations for reform.