This Guide for Policy Reform by Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program is organized into four issue areas: conflicts of interest, poverty penalties and poverty traps (when people are forced to pay more or face harsher sanctions because of their poverty), the ability-to-pay determination, and transparency and accountability. Under each of these sections, a description of the problem is followed by legislative, judicial, and executive reform suggestions for people at the state level to use and incorporate into their efforts.
This guide aims to inform litigators about various strategies to defend and gain relief for individual clients burdened by criminal justice debt. It also serves to foster communication and understanding among stakeholders who work in this particular area of the justice system.
This video provides an overview of the history of debtors’ prisons in the U.S. and features compelling commentary from citizens describing how our current system of court fines and fees put them in difficult situations and made them resort to desperate measures for survival.
Plaintiffs alleged that the Sherwood’s “hot check” court routinely jailed indigent persons unable to pay court fines and fees without inquiry into their ability to pay.
Arizona Chief Justice Scott Bales established Arizona’s Task Force on Fair Justice for All to recommend reforms for the state’s fines and fees procedures. The report consists of 11 principles and 53 corresponding recommendations.
Orange County Probation Department sent a bill of $16,372 to a juvenile’s mother for reimbursement of reasonable costs of support while her son was in detention. The County sought $23.90 for each day of detention and $2199 in legal expenses. Doing her best to pay the debt, Rivera sold her house and paid $9508. Unable to pay the rest, she was served, and a default judgment of $9905 was issued against her for failure to appear. Ms. Rivera eventually filed for bankruptcy.
In violation of due process rights, the City of Florissant jails people unable to pay court fines and fees without any inquiry into their ability to pay.
The Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles referred people who owed court fines and fees for traffic tickets to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) without any inquiry into the individual’s ability to pay. A referral to the DMV resulted in the suspension of the person’s driver’s license.
As budgets tighten, municipalities have turned to fines and fees to fill empty coffers. The result is that the rich may walk away, while the poor must pay or stay.
Fifteen percent of the Bogalusa City Court’s revenue is derived from court fines and fees. Judge Black gives indigent defendants the options of jail for nonpayment of fines and fees or the payment of an illegal $50 extension fee to buy additional time to pay their court debt.