In a Precarious Economy, Governments and Courts Must Take Immediate Action to Reduce Criminal Justice Fines and Fees

Maria Rafael Research Associate
Apr 02, 2020

Poor conditions, inadequate access to health care, and overcrowding put incarcerated people at a uniquely high risk of infection by COVID-19. But there is also a separate, less obvious threat caused by the pandemic, faced not only by those behind bars but also by millions of others involved in the justice system: extreme economic instability as a result of criminal justice fines and fees.

Fines and fees exist at every stage of the criminal justice process, from arrest and booking to conviction and sentencing. People can be ticketed for even minor infractions, charged to enter a jail, and then charged additional fees for each day they remain there. Even those serving non-jail sentences like probation or community service can be charged fees to participate. In addition, fines – a monetary sanction imposed when someone is convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony – are commonly imposed. These monetary sanctions add up and can total thousands of dollars. What’s more, the people being forced to pay are typically poor and are disproportionately people of color. Fines and fees ensnare millions of justice-involved people in cycles of debt, future criminal justice consequences, and ever-more precarious financial situations. And this economic and racial injustice is an issue we must address urgently.

For decades, jurisdictions around the country have increased their reliance on fines and fees in order to fill budget gaps. Today, as the escalating public health crisis threatens another global recession, we must prevent a similar reinvestment in this harmful and regressive system of taxation. Many Americans have already lost their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, making them unable to afford rent, groceries, and critical medical care. In the midst of this crisis, governments and courts should not only resist the urge to increase and expand criminal justice fines and fees to make up for budget shortfalls, but also take bold, proactive measures to ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs.

Below are evidence-based policies recommended by Vera’s partners at the Fines and Fees Justice Center to support justice-involved people in the wake of the present public health and economic crises.

Jails and prisons should:
  • Waive co-pays for medical visits by people in custody.
  • Provide incarcerated people with free liquid soap, hand sanitizer, and other disinfecting products.
  • Provide incarcerated people and their families and loved ones with free, easily accessible phone and e-mail communication.
  • Release any people incarcerated for outstanding payments of fines and fees, and stop jailing or detaining people for unpaid fines and fees.
Courts and law enforcement should:
  • Cease extending or revoking probation and parole or imposing new sanctions for unpaid fines and fees or other technical violations.
  • Discharge all outstanding fines, fees, and court debt.
  • Cease issuing and enforcing warrants for unpaid fines and fees or for failure to appear at a hearing addressing unpaid fines and fees.
  • End driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees or for not appearing in court, and reinstate driver’s licenses suspended for non-safety reasons.
  • Issue warnings to people who are driving on suspended licenses, rather than arresting or citing them.
  • Stop issuing parking tickets and municipal code violations that do not impact public safety; and stop booting, towing, and impounding vehicles for unpaid fines and fees.
  • Waive or reduce any judicially imposed fines.
  • Proactively and widely communicate any changes made to local and state fines and fees policies.

In Florida and New York, two of the five states in which Vera’s new Justice Fines and Fees project is conducting research, governments and courts have already taken some steps to change how they use and collect fines and fees in light of the pandemic. One practice that courts commonly use to coerce payment for fines and fees is to suspend driver’s licenses. In Florida, four state circuit courts have issued administrative orders to reduce these suspensions. Some places in New York State have also temporarily stopped processing new suspensions for failure to pay. In Buffalo, late fees and interest on parking, traffic, and other city accounts (such as utilities) have been suspended. And in Brooklyn, all non-essential court dates—including dates for payment of fines and fees—have been adjourned, and no warrants or civil judgments will be issued for unpaid court debt. Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also announced that during this time he will not prosecute low-level crimes.

In light of COVID-19, governments and courts must prioritize public health and protect our most vulnerable community members. Justice-involved people living paycheck-to-paycheck cannot continue to bear this unfair burden. Balancing budgets on the backs of the poor—an injustice every day—is now more inequitable than ever.

See more about the work that Vera is doing in in partnership with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the State Priorities Partnership to develop solutions for eliminating government reliance on fines and fees and identifying fair and sustainable alternatives for funding the system here.

View the full list of policy recommendations and nationwide rapid response policies being tracked by the Fines and Fees Justice Center here.