The excessive fines and fees often used in state and local criminal justice systems can place a significant burden on low-income families and often have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. Such fines and fees, imposed for violations ranging from parking tickets to more serious criminal offenses, are often used as a source of state and local revenue without regard for individuals’ ability to pay.
A legislative proposal in New York state offers a solution to some of these discriminatory practices through the End Predatory Court Fees Act. This legislation, currently before the State Senate and Assembly New York Codes Committees, would prohibit a variety of court, parole and probation fees, as well as mandatory minimum fines.
The bill would also mandate that courts assess an individual’s financial situation before imposing fines and would end incarceration as a punishment for unpaid fines or fees.
Currently, New York imposes automatic court fees for all convictions, even those as small as traffic tickets. A national analysis of fine revenues by Governing found that 12 New York localities generate over 20 percent of their general fund revenues from fines and fees. This results in a reliance on fines and fees for revenue and creates bad incentives for law enforcement.
Moreover, many of the costs associated with collecting fines and fees are often disregarded, ultimately making them an unreliable source of revenue. As noted by a report from the Obama administration’s Council of Economic Advisors:
Despite their goal of increasing revenue to fund local criminal justice expenditures, in many cases, the costs of collection may exceed revenues from fines and fees due to the high direct costs of collecting debt and the low rate of collection. Direct costs of administering the program can be substantial, including staffing collectors, locating offenders, and administrating collections.
These administrative costs are often ignored because many states, including New York, do not have any statewide process for tracking collection costs.
A report from No Price on Justice, a campaign organized to end predatory court fees in New York, stated that:
“New York does not keep legally mandated records on how the government assesses, collects, and distributes revenue from individual fees, including the mandatory surcharge. New York also fails to maintain data reporting infrastructure to track the amounts imposed and collected for specific fees.”
The same report revealed the state’s fees for violations, misdemeanors, and felonies have increased faster than inflation since they were introduced in the 1980s.
Not only are fines and fees an unreliable source of revenue, but they are also regressive and impose disproportionate costs on low-income communities. A survey of New York defense attorneys found that nearly 65 percent of local courts “rarely” or “never” take financial factors into account before issuing a warrant for missing payments.
This results in the criminalization of poverty and leaves many people unable to pay the high fines and fees associated with legal matters. Depending on the underlying offense, failure to pay fines and fees can result in bench warrants, arrests, incarceration, driver’s license suspensions and civil judgments.
A recent report from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve found that 35 percent of households in the U.S. do not have $400 to spare without having to borrow money or sell belongings. Without the financial stability to pay these expenses, people are pulled into a cycle of debt and incarceration.
Reining in fines and fees is only part of the solution currently under consideration in New York. The legislation goes a step further by protecting people who are currently incarcerated by vacating “existing warrants issued solely on a person’s failure to timely pay a fine, surcharge or fee and ends existing sentences of incarceration based on such failure.”
It also prohibits the payment of funds from their earnings as a prisoner and eliminates the requirement that a person receiving a discharge of sentence be able to financially comply with payment of fees or surcharges.
The fines imposed by state and local governments can push low-income citizens into a vicious cycle, trapping them in the criminal justice system even for very minor offenses. By eliminating some of New York’s predatory fines and fees and protecting those who are incarcerated, the End Predatory Court Fees Act seeks to eradicate monetary incentives that can result in harmful overcriminalization in vulnerable communities.