August 08, 2017

Annual 2017: ABA to examine impact of court fines, fees on indigent defendants

In 2014, National Public Radio ended a yearlong investigation on the impact of court fines and fees on the defendants who are required to pay them. It found that in most states, the costs of the criminal justice system – such as the expense of a public defender, room and board in jail, and the cost of parole supervision – are no longer free and are being increasingly shouldered by defendants and offenders. 

While in many cases such fees can be waived for indigent defendants, courts are more likely to put people on payment plans, many of which include harsh penalties for late or non-payments.

The shifting of the cost burden penalizes those with limited incomes, often racial and ethnic minorities.

“Just Debt? Reimagining Fines & Fees in America focuses on the critical question: How can we create a more just and reliable system?”  A panel discussion to be held during the American Bar Association Annual Meeting will examine the many damaging effects that fines and legal fees can have upon poor people and their families. The program will be held Thursday, Aug. 10 from 5-6:30 p.m. in the Metropolitan Ballroom West, 2nd floor, at the Sheraton New York Times Square.

The program will be moderated by CNN commentator Van Jones. Panelists are Maureen O’Connor, chief justice, Ohio State Supreme Court; Jeffrey Robinson, deputy legal director, ACLU; and Karol Mason, president, John Jay College.

Panelists will discuss the damaging effects that fines and fees can have on defendants — such as job loss, housing loss, license suspensions, and even imprisonment – as well as share alternate ideas for funding the justice system and making procedural improvements.

Andrew Perlman, chair for the ABA Center for Innovation and the dean at Suffolk University Law School, will provide opening remarks.

“We know that fines and fees unnecessarily damage the lives of low-income Americans,” Perlman said. “This event is focused on highlighting innovative solutions that improve the operation of our courts and our system of justice.”

The program will also offer a prelude discussion on a pilot program that can help address some of the issues at hand.  The pilot involves an online dispute resolution program that would serve as an adjunct to small claim courts. The goal is to facilitate the resolution of small disputes, which often go unresolved due because of simple barriers, such as lack of reliable transportation and limited time off from work.

The prelude panel will include incoming ABA President Hilarie Bass. Other panelists include Joanna Weiss, director of criminal justice for the Laura and John Arnold Foundation; and Nicole Austin-Hillery, director and counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice.  

The ABA Center for Innovation is the program sponsor. The center was established in September 2016 to encourage innovations that improve the accessibility and affordability of legal services and to transform how the public accesses the law and legal information.