Nationwide, research over the last decade has documented how skyrocketing court fines and fees cause harm to those least able to pay them, and make future justice involvement more likely.
In the most recent study, Idaho was singled out as relying almost entirely on penalties and fines to fund its judicial system, even as the state confronts more than $195 million in uncollected court debt.
The study, published by the Idaho Law Review, exposed what its authors call an unhealthy conflict between using fines and fees as both a source of revenue and punishment, and said they imposed an inequitable burden on the rural poor and communities of color.
“For people caught up in the criminal system, fees simply operate as another layer of punishment on top of fines,” the study said. “Enforcing monetary sanctions with the threat of additional fines, fees, and jail time merely recriminalizes financially precarious people, without any legitimate policy goal or discernible benefit to the state.
“Monetary sanctions fall especially harshly on low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people, but fines and fees are not just a problem in populous states with large communities of color.
“Mostly white and rural states like Idaho regularly impose substantial monetary sanctions on people without the means to pay them.”
The study recommended that Idaho abolish juvenile court administrative fees as a first step towards reform.
The study’s authors, Jeffrey Selbin, director of the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley Law, and Clinic researchers Gus Tupper and Cristina Mendez, detail how Idaho law authorizes — and in many cases requires — state and local courts to charge fines and fees to people in adult and juvenile court.
The study, commissioned in 2019 by the Idaho Legislature Office of Performance Evaluations (OPE), concluded that fines and fees are a “considerable” source of the system’s funding.
“The findings suggest a somewhat contested system of fines and fees, without stakeholder agreement about the wisdom of assessing and collecting monetary sanctions from people who are mostly unable to pay them,” the UC Berkeley researchers wrote.
In effect, they added, Idaho is trying to squeeze “blood from a turnip” — essentially forcing people to give money that they don’t have. Worsening the problem, the escalating fees have contributed to overzealous policing, prosecution and punishment, the study said.
Looking at The Numbers
According to the OPE, “[i]n fiscal year 2015, Idaho judges ordered about $65 million in fines, fees, and costs.”
Although courts collect some of the charged fines and fees, the study found that Idahoans cumulatively have “at least 206,289 unpaid [fines and fees] statewide totaling $195 million,” or more than $100 for every resident of the state.
To further put Idaho’s fines and fees into perspective, according to the OPE, out of a $1,000 fine and $203 added in fees, $135 of the fine and $15 of the fees go directly to the county district court.
Other small amounts will go to court programs, such as drug, mental health, and family court services. Additionally, other fees go to paying court technology, court device and electronic monitoring systems, and victim notifications.
Moreover, some $40 per month of misdemeanor probation fees mostly go directly to the county system.
Administrative fees are not designed to serve any penological purpose, authorities concede. In fact, as the Idaho Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations revealed in its own study, state legislatures not only permit, but often require, courts to charge administrative fees to generate revenue.
That has left the state system struggling to find ways to collect $195 million in court debt―a figure that continues to escalate “regardless of what additional sanctions are applied,” the Berkeley report says, with the result that individuals are stuck in a cycle of unpaid penalties that eventually force them into incarceration.
The OPE has focused on better collection methods, including more frequent probation contact with people who owe fines and fees, and greater use of collection agencies, payment plans and review hearings.
But this, the Berkeley researchers say, is the opposite of what should happen.
The study outlined “key action steps” and specific recommendations for reform to end the harmful impact of monetary sanctions — especially for juveniles — beginning by requiring state agencies, counties and juvenile courts to end the assessment and collection of juvenile fees.
It called on Gov. Brad Little to apply the same emergency executive powers used during the pandemic to “suspend state statutes and rules authorizing the assessment and collection of juvenile fees.”
‘The state legislature should follow this up by agreeing to “waive outstanding debt, which is unlikely to be collected and can hang over youth and families for years.”
Such measures would make a huge difference for justice-involved young people and their families, the researchers said, noting that “fees impose economic stress on family relationships and can force people to choose between paying rent and paying fees.”
“The fees worsen outcomes for youth, pushing them deeper into the system, making family reintegration more difficult, and increasing recidivism,” the researchers added. “And fees do not fall equally on all youth and families, exacerbating racial and socioeconomic disparities in the juvenile system.
The John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice (CMCJ), publisher of The Crime Report, convened two conferences in 2019-2020 to bring experts and policymakers together with journalists to discuss the criminal justice system’s use of fines and fees.
“The onerous burden of justice fines and fees is often obscured by media and policymakers’ attention to other areas of justice reform,” the conference concluded.
“As a result, the dearth of consistent, informed reporting on this issue has helped to keep the costs, and their consequences, hidden to many Americans; and it has created a troubling gap in public understanding of the current state of our justice system.”
In another recommendation, the study authors called on juvenile court judges, as well as prosecutors, to use their “enormous power” to enforce further reforms.
Interviews with some judges revealed they considered imposing fines and fees as a central part of their duties, but the “overall sentiment” was that monetary sanctions were too high, and some judges and clerks chafed in their role as debt collectors.
No matter what community members, organizations, and the justice system decide, the researchers note one thing: “half measures are not enough.”
“Idaho can stop trying to get blood from a turnip and end its system of money as punishment.”
Jeffrey Selbin is a clinical professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and directs the Policy Advocacy Clinic, which he founded in 2015. From 2014 to 2017, Selbin served as co-faculty director of the Henderson Center for Social Justice, and from 2006 to 2015, he served as faculty director of the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Berkeley’s community-based clinic.
Gus Tupper is a clinical teaching fellow in the Policy Advocacy Clinic. He works with organizers, young people, and local groups in the Northwest and Mountain West to end racist and regressive financial penalties in the juvenile system. He is interested in racial and economic justice, social movements, and the political economy of law.
Cristina Mendez is a second-year law student in the in the Policy Advocacy Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law, where she researched criminal and juvenile fines and fees in the state of Idaho, including interviewing key stakeholders. From June to July of 2020, Mendez was a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of California Berkeley School of Law conducting research on legal scholarship and immigration law.
The full report can be accessed here.
Further information on the Cash Register Justice Program can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: Court Fines and Fees Create ‘Debt Trap’ for Millions of Americans: Economist
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer