A groundbreaking new report from the Brennan Center for Justice challenges the notion that fines and fees are an effective source of revenue by studying collections in 10 counties across three states.
What they found is that in Texas, New Mexico, and Florida alone, governments are owed $1.9 billion in uncollected debt, and the number is growing. Researchers suggest this is because courts often don’t consider what a defendant can afford when issuing charges, meaning they can assess fines and fees that are nearly impossible to pay relative to a defendant’s income. Because people sometimes simply don’t have the money to give, much of the debt governments are owed likely won’t be collected.
When governments are able to collect, it comes at a price: Counties in Texas and New Mexico spent 41 cents of every dollar they brought in on collection and enforcement costs, which is 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes. One county in New Mexico actually lost money on fines and fees, spending $1.17 for every dollar it collected.
Amount one county in New Mexico spent to recover every dollar it collected
The Brennan Center findings are significant because the power of fines and fees as a revenue generator remains a significant hurdle to reform, even as research mounts showing their myriad negative impacts.
Earlier this year, the California State Association of Counties (CSAC) and Chief Probation Officers of California (CPOC) came out in opposition to California’s Senate Bill 144, legislation widely supported by civil liberties advocates that would eliminate administrative fees in the state’s criminal justice system. CSAC and CPOC didn’t disagree with the principle of the bill — lowering financial burdens for low-income people — but ultimately opposed because they were concerned by potential lost revenue.
Studies show that fines and fees punish low-income people disproportionately and can have a harmful cascading effect on people’s lives, driving them into debt, leading to driver’s license suspensions that can compromise their ability to retain work, and keeping them entangled with the justice system. And stories like Desiree’s shine a light on the painful experience of struggling to pay a $3,000 court fine while keeping her family afloat and paying for insulin, until she was actually jailed when she couldn’t afford payments.
Yet many counties are reluctant to forgo this source of funding, even when it produces such clear harms.
“Brennan Center’s report demonstrates that fines and fees are often imposed without full consideration of both the human and fiscal costs that follow in their wake,” said Carson Whitelemons, Criminal Justice Manager at Arnold Ventures. “By all practical and moral measures, a system based on exacting revenue from those least able to pay is unsustainable. This analysis shows not only the high costs of collecting fines and fees, but that more data must be tracked by governments on this issue to make informed decisions.”
The authors’ figures don’t even take into account the full scope of what governments spend on fines and fees, which often go unmeasured: the costs to jail people who don’t pay, the costs of using police to issue warrants and suspend driver’s licenses, and the costs of paying probation and parole officers to track down payments. The actual amount governments spend on trying to collect fines and fees is likely higher.
So if criminal justice fines and fees are harmful to people and aren’t efficient revenue streams, how can governments refocus on more effective ways of holding people accountable?
The authors of the Brennan Center study suggest courts stop collecting fees altogether and instead raise revenue for the justice system in the same way other public institutions do it: through taxes. When courts do assess fines, they should take a person’s financial circumstances into account from the very beginning to avoid impossible and life-ruining charges. And citing calculations that jailing people for failing to pay fines and fees can cost as much as much as 115 percent of the amount assessed, study authors call for an end to incarceration as a punishment for failure to pay.
Since this latest report shows that fines and fees are an efficient way to harm low-income people but an inefficient way to raise money, it begs the question: When it comes to fines and fees, when will public policy finally catch up to the research?