Brennan Center for Justice on Thursday (November 21) released a report analyzing how people and communities are impacted when criminal courts impose high fees and fines on defendants. While many state and local governments rely on this money to cover basic operational costs, the study shows that these fees burden defendants with crippling debt that hinders their ability to reenter society after a conviction.

The authors of  “The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines: A Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties” discovered that forcing defendants to pay fines is ultimately a “wasteful method for raising revenue,” according to an emailed statement. The report finds that not only is the practice fiscally irresponsible, but it also disproportionately affects people of color and destroys communities. 

Matthew Menendez, one of the authors of the report and counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, talked to Colorlines about the burdens of this practice:

Communities of color and less affluent areas, who are policed more frequently than other groups, are more often burdened with fees and fines… Individuals can end up owing hundreds or thousands of dollars that they can’t afford to pay. This unpaid debt can lead to severe collateral consequences like a suspended driver’s license or losing the ability to vote. It becomes a barrier that prevents people from successfully reentering society after a conviction.

The study also shows that, in addition to hurting those attempting to reenter society, the practice of imposing court fees also does little to help the courts. “In addition to thwarting rehabilitation and failing to improve public safety, criminal-court fees and fines also fail at efficiently raising revenue,” the executive summary of the report points out. “The high costs of collection and enforcement are excluded from most assessments, meaning that actual revenues from fees and fines are far lower than what legislators expect.” 

Before the system can be reformed, Menendez says it’s critical to understand the full financial ramifications of governments charging massive fees that for the most part go unpaid. “Throughout the Brennan Center’s years of research around the issue, we found that much less is known about the fiscal costs of imposing and collecting fees and fines,” he told Colorlines. “There is no tally of how many government resources are used in the process, or of funds that go uncollected because courts don’t consider how much a defendant can realistically pay before issuing a charge. It’s important to know that information as we and other advocates continue to push for reforms.”

Additional key findings pulled from the report summary include: 

  • Resources devoted to collecting and enforcing fees and fines could be better spent on efforts that actually improve public safety. Collection and enforcement efforts divert police, sheriff’s deputies and courts from their core responsibilities.
  • Jailing those unable to pay fees and fines is especially costly—sometimes as much as 115 percent of the amount collected—and generates no revenue.
  • The true costs are likely even higher than the estimates presented here, because many of the costs of imposing, collecting and enforcing criminal fees and fines could not be ascertained.

Read the full report here