Fees and fines, along with driver's license suspensions, can push people who are already in dire financial straits further into debt and keep them tied to the justice system. Failing to pay can even get people put behind bars. Changing or eliminating these practices is good policy in the best of times. Here are five reasons why it's even more critical in a time of public health and economic crisis.
#1 Canceling or suspending outstanding criminal justice debt aids the economically vulnerable, who will be most devastated by the health and financial crisis.
- The coronavirus epidemic and criminal justice debt have something in common: They both disproportionately harm low-income communities. Low-wage or hourly workers and families already struggling to make ends meet will face unprecedented financial struggles thanks to mass unemployment and the widespread economic downturn caused by COVID-19.
- Not collecting on debt or charging late fees and interest during the crisis could mean the difference between survival and financial ruin for many people. It will also aid in quicker financial recovery when the crisis is over.
- A “grace” recovery period should be granted after the crisis to avoid exacerbating tenuous economic circumstances.
- Suspending court hearings to address unpaid fines and fees while the CDC guidelines about social distancing are in place will reduce risk of virus spread.
(Example: New York is suspending state debt collection. Student debt, medical debt and other state-referred debt will have payments frozen for at least 30 days.)
#2 Halting imposition and collection of juvenile fees and fines prevents harm to families struggling to get by.
- Juveniles and their families are particularly vulnerable. Ending juvenile fees and fines is smart policy in normal times, given the long-lasting harms juvenile justice debt can have on children, keeping them tethered to the justice system and impeding their development.
- In this time of crisis, it is more critical than ever to keep kids and their families strong and stable.
(Example: Before the pandemic, California abolished juvenile fees statewide going forward; in response to the rise of COVID-19, the state Franchise Tax Board has suspended all wage garnishments and tax intercepts for outstanding juvenile justice debt as well as criminal justice debt.)
#3 Ending driver’s license suspensions due to lack of payment allows essential and emergency transportation to continue legally.
- Using driver’s license suspensions to punish nonpayment can snowball into arrest, incarceration, additional fines and fees, or new criminal charges, spiraling people into debt and pushing them farther into the justice system. Driver’s licenses should be suspended only to ensure safe roads.
- Especially while public transportation is discouraged during social distancing/stay-at-home orders, people should be able to travel for essential needs without fear of arrest or jailing while avoiding crowds.
(Example: Minnesota is halting driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, while suspending late fees and new referrals for collections.)
#4 People can be arrested and jailed for nonpayment — essentially creating modern-day debtors’ prisons. Ending this practice will help prevent the spread of the virus.
- No one should be sent to jail for nonpayment in the first place. Being poor isn’t a crime.
- This practice is even more dangerous in the time of COVID-19 because jails and prisons are the perfect place for a communicable respiratory disease to spread. People who are jailed because they can’t afford their debt could be seriously harmed or even killed due to the increased risk of contracting the coronavirus. That is a grievous sentence for being poor.
- Reducing the jail population, not adding to it, means fewer vulnerable people will be exposed in an unsafe and crowded system.
- To do that, courts should stop issuing and police should stop enforcing warrants due to unpaid fines and fees.
(Example: The Maine court system has vacated all outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and fees.)
#5 Relying on revenue from criminal justice fees and fines to fill gaps in government budgets exploits the poor and is an unreliable form of revenue.
- The concern that governments will issue even more fees and fines than normal in light of COVID-19 has precedent: During the 2008 recession, state and local governments ratcheted up the number of fines and fees they imposed for everything from traffic fines to misdemeanors and felonies in an effort to make up lost revenue.
- This is regressive taxation: Criminal justice fees and fines, particularly fines for low-level misdemeanors such as vagrancy or disorderly conduct, are disproportionately issued to the poor. Increasing these fines and fees to fill government budgets is pulling money from those who can least afford it.
- Criminal justice debt is actually an inefficient source of revenue. A recent study from the Brennan Center shows that in practice, collecting on criminal justice debt is difficult and resource-intensive — much more so than other methods of generating revenue.
(Example: One study showed that 10 counties across Florida, New Mexico, and Texas spend on average 121 times more than the IRS to collect revenue.)