Some States Try To Cut Court Fees, Debt, And Encounter Resistance


Driving 10 miles an hour over the posted speed limit in California brings a base fine of $35, to which the state adds $40, and the county adds $28. There's an $8 fee to fund emergency medical services, a $20 fee to fund DNA testing, a $40 court operations fee and more. That relatively minor moving violation costs you $238, reports Stateline. For years, state and local governments have attached fees and costs to everything from speeding tickets to parole supervision. The extra assessments are supposed to pay for court operations and associated justice system programs, such as DNA testing. A growing body of research says they also can trap poor people in debt, and corrupt law enforcement and the courts. Citing such studies, some states are trying to scale back court-ordered debt but they have run into significant obstacles. In a time of tight budgets, it can be politically problematic to choke off a steady revenue source.

Passing a state law restricting such fees doesn't necessarily mean that local courts, which may operate with significant autonomy, will abide by it. “It's very difficult to characterize across the nation, because it's almost complete chaos,” said Prof. Karin Martin of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. A U.S. Department of Justice investigation said Ferguson, Mo. police wrote tickets to raise more money for the town. Courts threw low-income people into jail when they couldn't pay their debts— a throwback to the 19th century practice of “debtors' prisons.” Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders, a legal services group that represents poor clients in the St. Louis area , said, “I wish this was something new. I wish it were something that only impacted St. Louis because it would be easier to get at. It's not. It's a nationwide phenomenon.”

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