Thousands of people who come into contact with the justice system—no matter how minor the offense—can find themselves ensnared by a cycle of debt.
Legal financial obligations, often referred to as fines and fees in the justice system, can be imposed at virtually any stage of a person’s case. Costs can range from docket and public defender fees to post-conviction treatment and monitoring charges. If unpaid, these assessments can result in driver’s license suspension, incarceration and adverse credit impacts.
In recent years, policymakers have considered how fines and fees affect the fairness and equality of the justice system when punishment can be determined by financial status. Currently, as many as 15 states have limited or repealed laws concerning the imposition and collection of certain fees. Additionally, 24 states and Washington, D.C., have prohibited the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay court debt.
Those who have lost their licenses this way can face an impossible choice, says Leisa Moseley, Nevada state director with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national advocacy organization. “Do I continue to drive and be able to go to work, get my children to the doctor, get my children to school? Or do I not drive and risk losing my job and not being able to take care of my family?”
“A defendant’s debt to society should not become such a financial burden that it creates a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to overcome.”
—Delaware Rep. Sean Lynn
In August, a group of 32 lawmakers, court officers and legislative staff from eight states convened in Nevada to discuss the use of fines and fees and other legal financial obligations. Meeting attendees heard from national experts on subjects ranging from state and local budget pressures to public defense counsel fees.
States and localities that want to change the way they use fines and fees face the challenge of funding vital government operations such as courts when revenue from civil and criminal offenses drops off substantially or stops altogether.
Delaware and New Mexico, two states represented at the meeting, recently eliminated some of the fees and non-monetary sanctions associated with unpaid legal debt.
“A defendant’s debt to society should not become such a financial burden that it creates a vicious cycle that is nearly impossible to overcome,” Delaware Rep. Sean Lynn (D) says. “Fines should not pile up to the point that a person trying to repay their debt loses their ability to drive to work to earn wages to pay these fees.” Lynn sponsored a sweeping bill to eliminate nearly all fines and fees in the juvenile justice system as well as fees for public defense and probation. The measure additionally mandates data collection to track the revenue generated from legal financial obligations. The law took effect one year ago.
New Mexico is one of the latest states to amend its laws with the enactment of House Bill 139 and Senate Bill 47.
The team representing New Mexico—state Supreme Court Chief Justice Shannon Bacon, Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D) and Cynthia Pacheco, the court administrative office program manager—spoke about how the judicial and legislative branches worked together to address concerns around court debt. The new legislation prohibits surcharges such as traffic safety fees, court facility fees and bench warrant fees, as well as driver’s license suspension for outstanding fines and fees in traffic and criminal cases. The revenue from the abolished fees will be replaced by appropriations from the state’s general fund.
After the roundtable, state teams shared what they learned from the meeting and the plans they developed for their respective states.
“It is important for us to do what the data shows works—even if it is unconventional,” Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R) says. “Many of us believe that the defendant should have skin in the game, but if the data shows that [certain monetary and non-monetary sanctions] don’t work, we should look at something else.”
Kate Bryan is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Civil and Criminal Justice Program.