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New York, NY – Brennan Center researchers have conducted the first-ever analysis of the financial costs to multiple jurisdictions of imposing, collecting, and enforcing court fees and fines. They found that generating revenue through levying fees and fines on criminal defendants is costly, inefficient, and wasteful, particularly when the court doesn’t assess the person’s ability to pay. The report recommends the elimination of court fees, sliding scales to determine fine amounts, and other reforms.

“Our country has been waking up to the immorality of levying fees and fines on defendants who can’t afford to pay. Going into crippling cycles of debt, losing voting rights, going to jail – these and other consequences have devastated people across the country, particularly communities of color,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, one of the authors of The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines: A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties and acting director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Some have tried to justify these practices as necessary for generating revenue. But we found that the work involved in fees and fines is extremely costly and inefficient.”

The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines provides a detailed breakdown of the money assessed and collected in 10 counties across Florida, New Mexico, and Texas. The report also profiles the fees and fines practices in each of those states as a whole.

In 2017, the researchers found, two of the Texas counties in the report spent more than 41 cents on collecting fines and fees for each dollar of revenue they generated. The Internal Revenue Service spent one-third of a penny per dollar in taxes it collected that year. In 2016, Bernalillo County in New Mexico spent at least $1.17 per dollar of fees and fines collected.

These figures – more than 41 cents and more than $1.17 -- are extremely low estimates of the amounts the counties spent on collecting fees and fines. For example, they don’t include the costs of enforcing warrants or suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment of debts. In every jurisdiction covered by the report, the governments don’t track much of what they spend on collecting fees and fines.

“We spent years gathering as much data as we could find to estimate how much governments spend to generate revenue through imposing fees and fines on criminal defendants. Although our cost estimates are constrained by enormous gaps in the recordkeeping, our numbers show alarming inefficiency in the expenditure of money, time, and resources,” said Matthew Menendez, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and a co-author of the report. “Sheriff’s deputies, police officers, administrators, and many others must chase fees and fines debt that will likely never be collected because the debtors are too poor, and doing so diverts resources from protecting public safety. Keeping people stuck in a cycle of debt costs governments money, with nothing in return.”

The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines found that between 2012 and 2018, the states of Florida, New Mexico, and Texas amassed more than $1.8 billion in uncollected debt from fines and fees.

The report’s authors recommend that states and localities:

  • Eliminate court-imposed fees
  • Institute a sliding scale for fines based on ability to pay
  • Eliminate driver’s license suspension as a penalty for nonpayment of criminal fees and fines
  • Stop jailing people for failure to pay fines and fees
  • Purge old debt balances that are unlikely to be paid and continue to burden the debtors

“This report shows that how we assess and collect fines and fees is inefficient and unfair, and doesn’t serve defendants or communities,” said Juliene James, director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “It’s time for policy reform that fundamentally restructures these practices and addresses how core government functions are funded.”

A fine is a cost issued as part of a defendant’s sentence, while fees are costs levied on a defendant, such as a DNA database fee, fee for determining eligibility for a public defender, fee for a public defender’s time, filing clerk fee, jury fee, jail fee, or a crime lab analysis fee. Fees are also levied in relation to payment of fees and fines, like late fees and installment fees.

Matthew Menendez, Michael F. Crowley, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, and Noah Atchison are the authors of The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines. The Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime provided research assistance for the report.