In an in-depth study analyzing the wide-spread practice of imposing crippling fines on criminal-case defendants to fund courts and even local governments, the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law called for an end to this unfair, unreliable, stigmatizing, and, as the report shows, inefficient practice.
Released Thursday, the first-of-its-kind report, titled “The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines: A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties,” concluded that these fines amount to a “regressive tax on the poor” with clear racial discrimination.
The study examined 10 counties across Texas, Florida, and New Mexico, as well as statewide data for those three states.
“Today many states and localities rely on these fees and fines to fund their court systems or even basic government operations,” said the report. “A wealth of evidence has already shown that this system works against the goal of rehabilitation and creates a major barrier to people reentering society after a conviction.”
The study found that “There is also evidence that fees and fines are assessed in a racially discriminatory way. A 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that municipalities that rely heavily on revenue from fees and fines have a higher than average share of African American and Latino residents.”
In its two “Cash Register Justice” fellowship conferences held by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, sponsored by Arnold Ventures, the widespread practice of local governments turning their poorest constituents into cash cows by imposing burdensome court fees and fines was discussed and decried.
The revenue earned from this practice has become a pipeline to cyclical poverty and mass incarceration, speakers agreed.
The assumption seems to be that this practice is a necessary evil to keep courts and governments funded. However, according to the study, “…in addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue. The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far
lower than what legislators expect.”
Moreover, the report said, because fees and fines are “typically imposed without regard to a defendant’s ability to pay, jurisdictions have billions of dollars in unpaid court debt on the books that they are unlikely to ever collect.”
Instead of focusing on public safety, law enforcement resources are often devoted to collecting and enforcing fees. This is clearly diverting police, sheriff’s deputies, and
courts from their core responsibilities, the report concluded.
What makes the practice an even deeper problem is that fees and fines are an “inefficient source of government revenue.” Among the report’s discoveries was that “the Texas and New Mexico counties studied here effectively spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue they raise from fees and fines on in-court hearings and jail costs alone. That’s 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes, and many times what the states themselves spend to collect taxes.”
Among the recommendations of the Brennan report:
— States and localities should pass legislation to eliminate court-imposed fees. Courts “should be funded primarily by taxpayers, all of whom are served by the justice system.”
–States should institute a sliding scale for assessing fines based on individuals’ ability to pay. “A $200 fine that is a minor inconvenience to one person may be an insurmountable debt to another.”
— Courts should stop the practice of jailing for failure to pay, which harms rehabilitation efforts “and makes little fiscal sense.”
— States should eliminate driver’s license suspension for nonpayment of criminal fees. “Lawmakers should follow the approach taken by Texas, where recent legislation will reinstate hundreds of thousands of licenses.”
— Courts and agencies should improve data automation practices so that affected individuals understand their outstanding court debts and policymakers can more thoroughly evaluate the efficacy of fees and fines as a source of revenue.
— States should pass laws purging old balances that are unlikely to be paid but continue to complicate the lives of millions, as some jurisdictions, including San Francisco, have done.
The study was produced by Matthew Menendez, Michael F. Crowley, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Noah Atchison, with research assistance from the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime.
It can be read here.