September 01, 2019

Fines and Fees

ABA makes headway on reducing the impact on indigent people

Fines and fees are a necessary part of any judicial system, but in some cases this method of funding can itself cause injustice. American Bar Association policy development has given new life to the debate about the appropriate use of fines and fees, and states are using our policy to help inform their efforts.

The Problem

Fines and fees are one way a government can offset the cost of services provided by the courts, which remain chronically underfunded. However, impoverished people faced with governmental fines for minor offenses often suffer undue burdens when presented with these fees. For families living paycheck to paycheck, an unexpected fine can prove impossible to balance with other living expenses. For example, when someone fails to pay a parking ticket or a speeding ticket, they incur late fees. These late fees can become a significant burden on indigent families who already can’t pay off the original fine for the ticket. These fees compound over time, and they also disproportionately affect people of color.

When these fines and fees aren’t fully paid, some states impose nonmonetary punishment. One of the most common forms of nonmonetary punishment is revoking a citizen’s driver’s license. Indigent individuals may find themselves in the untenable position of either driving with a suspended license or losing their jobs. Driving with a suspended license may be sanctioned with incarceration. Losing a job can hinder the timely repayment of a fine and fees. Suspending a driver’s license for nonpayment is therefore out of proportion to the purpose of ensuring payment and destructive to that end. The ABA denounces the use of such punishments.

ABA Action

The ABA adopted The ABA Ten Guidelines on Fines and Fees as policy in August 2018 to facilitate the conversation that fines and fees should not place undue burdens on indigent people. In these guidelines, the ABA emphasizes the limits to fees and the ability-to-pay standards. The limits-to-fees standard considers the economic situation of a defendant and apportions their fees fairly. The ability-to-pay standard uses a universal metric to determine how much a person should reasonably pay to avoid undue hardship. The guidelines also assert that courts should not revoke voting rights or impose jailtime for unpaid fees.

The ABA Guidelines explain that nonmonetary punishment for civil offenses, such as revoking a driver’s license, can reinforce the poverty cycle and cause reincarceration. There are alternatives to these sanctions: courts can reassess the amount of money owed, or they can place an extension on the fee. Fees are largely in place to offset the services provided by the justice system, but fees should only be implemented in cases where an individual can pay without significant hardship.

So far, the ABA has shared its Ten Guidelines with five states in support of their efforts to prevent revocation or suspension of an indigent defendant’s driver’s license or other nonmonetary punishments for failing to pay fees. Several states have already legislated changes, with others are still debating the issue. The American Bar Association will continue to fight against disproportionate sanctions for indigent people in our continued efforts to build public trust in the American justice system.