The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Fines and Fees Justice Center. Here are some excerpts from the report’s “Introduction and Executive Summary”:
Over the past two decades, advocates, researchers, government agencies and the media have drawn increasing attention to the dangerous effects of fines and fees, particularly on communities of color and low-income people. While those moving through the criminal justice system often experience fines and fees as a single, ongoing burden, there are key distinctions between how each of these revenue sources are assessed and imposed.
Fines are monetary sanctions imposed for violating the law. Fees (also known as costs, assessments and surcharges) are additional charges imposed to fund the criminal legal system and other government services. Fines and some fees are imposed by courts when a person is convicted of a criminal or traffic offense or a municipal code violation. Typically, these fines and fees are owed to the court. Fees are also often imposed by local governments or their agencies both before and after a person is convicted. For example, probation fees may be imposed by a local probation department either before trial or after a conviction. These fees are typically owed to either a city or county government.
Considerable research has uncovered the financial burden and unintended consequences wreaked on the people charged with paying fines and fees. Yet there has been little, if any, investigation into how much debt is outstanding or delinquent nationwide. One of the few studies to address the issue found that none of the eight jurisdictions studied had a central repository where information on the total amount of fines and fees owed could be found. Understanding the full scope of our nation’s criminal justice debt problem is vital to the task of creating an equitable justice system. Without this information, we cannot accurately evaluate the true impact of fines and fees as a source of government revenue or, more importantly, as a financial burden on those who owe court debt. The absence of data also results in the absence of accountability for policymakers and justice system stakeholders who support and enact harmful fines and fees policies.
This report addresses fines and fees imposed at conviction in felony, misdemeanor, traffic and municipal ordinance violation cases. We refer to these fines and fees as “court debt” because it is debt imposed by the court and typically collected by courts or private collection agencies working on a court’s behalf.
This court debt is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. Depending on the jurisdiction, the fines and fees imposed at conviction can be just a fraction of the total amount of unpaid fines and fees owed by people who are or were involved in the criminal legal system. California, a state which maintains relatively robust data on fines and fees, serves an example — outstanding debt owed to California from the fines and fees imposed at conviction is equal to roughly $10 billion; roughly $16 billion is owed to the state’s counties for one or more of the 23 administrative fees that counties are authorized by state law to impose; and approximately $360 million was owed to counties in juvenile fees.
We chose to focus our investigation on court debt because courts keep a record of every case, and those records should specify the amount of fines and fees imposed at conviction. We assumed that courts routinely aggregated that data, allowing them to determine the amount of fines and fees assessed. We also assumed that courts would track how much of those fines and fees were actually collected. In an effort to obtain this critical information, the Fines and Fees Justice Center contacted judicial offices and government agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that might have data related to outstanding court debt. In a few states, the information related to the data request was already publicly available, but for most of the jurisdictions, a formal request was submitted….
But for half the country … the full extent of our nation’s problem with court debt is shockingly untraceable and unknown. And it’s not just the numbers that matter. If states do not have the means (technological or otherwise) to determine how much money they are owed, there is a strong possibility that reliable data about who holds that debt may also be out of reach. Without this vital information, stakeholders cannot appropriately weigh other socio-economic factors (apart from poverty) that may correlate with an inability to settle one’s court debt. How can we intelligently assess policy solutions when we can’t obtain a complete view of the problem?…
Knowing how much court debt exists will also allow us to accurately assess whether government resources are being wasted trying to collect debt that people will never be able to pay. According to a report published by the Brennan Center for Justice, it costs New Mexico’s largest county, Bernalillo, at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises from fines and fees. The report also found that some Texas and New Mexico counties spend 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes on fines and fees collection efforts. These are valuable funds that could be invested in our communities….
Based on the information that was received, we can document that at least $27.6 billion of fines and fees is owed across the nation. This figure grossly understates the amount of court debt that people living in the U.S. cannot afford to pay because only 25 states provided data, and the information that many provided was incomplete. Information concerning the debt totals for the remaining 25 states and the District of Columbia could not be provided or was not available.