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The day fine system used in countries across Europe could be implemented in the United States to reduce the injustice caused by the over-use of high fines and fines against poor people, and particularly Black people and other people of colour, according to Fair Trials. Today the criminal justice watchdog has launched a new report Day Fines Systems: Lessons from Global Practice.

The report is a companion piece to the Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Policy Project (CJPP) report, The Limits of Fairer Fines: Lessons from Germany. Fair Trials conducted research through its Legal Experts Advisory Panel (LEAP) network to analyze the use of day fine practices in Austria, Hungary, Finland, France, Poland, Spain, Sweden, England and Wales. This report is part of Fair Trials’ comparative work with the Transatlantic Bridge project, which offers a global perspective on US criminal justice reform.

Day fines are a system in which courts set fines based on people’s economic circumstances, with the idea that they can therefore afford to pay the fine. While advocates across the United States have considered day fines as a solution to the issue of high fees and fines in U.S. courts, there is very little empirical information about how day fines work in practice. Together, these two reports provide a deep look into one-day fines jurisdiction, Germany, (the CJPP report) and a broad overview of policies and practices in day fines jurisdictions across Europe (the Fair Trials report).

The practice of raising revenue in the United States through criminal fines and fees strongly contrasts with the practice in many European jurisdictions. Currently, courts in the US impose high fines and fees, often motivated by revenue-raising goals, and punish people harshly who are unable to pay, including with warrants, incarceration, more fees, and suspension of driver’s licenses.

Fair Trials’ report found that fairer fines can help prevent people from becoming caught in the criminal justice system, and contribute to reducing prison overcrowding and racial injustice in the US. That’s because at least in some European jurisdictions, fines are set low enough for people to pay, and the state does not incarcerate people for non-payment. However, the report also finds some flaws in the day fines system. For example, few jurisdictions engage in investigations of income and actual costs of living in order to assess a person’s ability to pay, and some incarcerate when people can’t pay. Some jurisdictions also have options such as extensions, payment plans (without interest), community service, or abandonment of collection.

While the report finds that fines may be made fairer to reduce some of the harms in the U.S. system, it also shows that in systems where day fines are well established, they have been used alongside other reforms aimed at legalizing and decriminalising offences and introducing alternatives to punishment. To truly address the issues of over-punishment against Black people and other people of colour in the United States, jurisdictions will have to not only reduce fine amounts but also how much they punish.

Rebecca Shaeffer, Senior Legal and Policy Officer at Fair Trials, said:

“There is an urgent, global realisation, particularly acute in the United States, that we need to reduce the harms that criminal legal systems impose especially on poor, black and ethnic minority communities.”
“Fines and fees are being used to extract wealth from policed communities and transferring it to agents of state violence.
“In the midst of calls to defund the police, we need to resituate our relationship with monetary sanctions as criminal penalties. This report aids this effort by examining how different European countries use fines as punishment in ways that may aid efforts to decarcerate and ensure modes of justice that end centuries of state predation upon overpoliced communities.”

Mitali Nagrecha, Director of the National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative at Harvard Law School said:

“Our misdemeanor systems are unjust, not only because punishment isn’t right sized—they are also unjust because they target low income people and people of color to raise revenue”
“Fines will always impact people with lower means more, and the socioeconomic barriers we identify will be hard to fully overcome”
“This comparative report will be invaluable to some U.S. jurisdictions addressing high fees and fines”

Notes to editor

About Fair Trials
Fair Trials is a global criminal justice reform organisation with offices in London, Brussels and Washington, D.C., focused on improving the right to a fair trial in accordance with international standards. https://www.fairtrials.org/

About Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Project
The Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP) at Harvard Law School conducts research and advocacy to support criminal justice reform. It generates legal and policy analysis designed to serve advocates and policymakers throughout the country, convenes diverse stakeholders to diagnose problems and chart concrete reforms, and collaborates with government agencies to pilot and implement policy initiatives. http://cjpp.law.harvard.edu

Methodology
Fair Trials conducted a combination of desk research, survey research with criminal defense lawyers, and public information requests in relation to the following jurisdictions: Austria, Hungary, Finland, France, Poland, Spain, and Sweden. It also conducted desk research in relation to a short-lived experiment in the use of day fines in England and Wales.

The full report can be found here.