Recommendation area ▸

Fines and Fees

The Problem ▸

Police enforcement actions can result in fines or fees as determined by state and local law. Though fines and fees may be preferred alternatives to incarceration, studies have shown that monetary penalties disproportionately impact the economically disadvantaged and racial and ethnic minorities. Monetary fines are often compounded with fees and additional penalties (e.g., late payment), adding significantly to the overall cost of resolving the original sanction. More importantly, non-payment may have considerable collateral consequences, including owing more money (e.g., penalties), extended probation, suspension of driving privileges, warrants for arrest, incarceration, and restrictions on other rights (e.g., loss of voting privileges or loss of occupational licenses).

Law enforcement agencies are responsible for enforcing laws (many of which include financial sanctions) and the consequences of failure to comply with sanctions. Police are typically not responsible for collecting court-imposed fines and fees. They are, however, required to execute arrest warrants, thereby indirectly engaging in the enforcement of financial sanctions imposed by courts. Compounding fines and fees can result in increased criminal justice system involvement and undermine economic stability for the most vulnerable people. Placing police at the center of enforcing financial sanctions can erode the relationship between police and the communities they serve.

What We Know ▸

Council Recommendations ▸

Recommendation 32

​Do Not Use Law Enforcement to Collect Fines and Fees

Law enforcement officers should not be assigned to collect fines and fees imposed by statutes and implemented by the criminal justice system. The current practice has a disparate impact on the economically disadvantaged and racial and ethnic minorities, threatens police-community relationships, and undermines more public safety goals.

Recommendation 33

Decouple Law Enforcement Agency Budgets from Fines

Law enforcement agency budgets should never be tied to revenue generated through law enforcement activity. When a law enforcement agency derives a substantial portion of its operating budget from fines associated with traffic stops and other minor violations, it can encourage policing practices focused on generating revenue rather than enhancing public safety and forming positive police-community relationships.

Recommendation 34

Do Not Use Law Enforcement to Serve Warrants for Unpaid Fines and Fees

Warrants for non-criminal matters, including unpaid fines and fees or failure to appear at traffic hearings, should not be served by officers. This practice adds to community tension and mistrust, particularly among people with the least means to pay and the most to lose.

Recommendation 35

Reduce the Harm of Fines and Fees

The impact of fines and fees should be reduced using evidence-based strategies to determine individuals’ ability to pay, flexible payment plans, fine-to-work conversions, education and workforce development, and substance and alcohol counseling in place of monetary sanctions.

Recommendation 36

Implement Strategies to Reduce Non-Payment of Fines and Fees

Evidenced-based strategies should be adopted to increase compliance with court orders and reduce the need for fines, fees, and other sanctions. Small behavioral nudges, such as text-message reminders, can reduce non-compliance with court orders and warrant-amnesty events can help people address outstanding warrants for low-level offenses.

Further Research ▸

More studies are needed to understand the costs and benefits of existing practices of imposing and collecting fees and fines, including their disparate impact on racial and ethnic minorities, collateral consequences, and other impacts.

Process and impact evaluations should be conducted on Ability-to-Pay tools, such as those in California and Washington State. Process evaluations would help to understand how these tools affect compliance. Impact evaluations would help gauge how these tools impact low-income populations. Moreover, given that courts rely on legal financial obligations as a revenue source, cost-benefit analyses are needed to determine how the use of such tools will financially impact the courts and other governmental agencies.[16]

Existing research has yielded promising results regarding the effectiveness of behavior nudges in increasing compliance with the payment of fines and fees. More research, looking at a variety of methods implemented in different community settings, is needed to better understand if the findings from these existing studies can be generalized.

Citations ▸

[1]FFJC (n.d.). First Steps Toward More Equitable Fines and Fees Practices: Policy Guidance on Ability-to-Pay Assessments, Payment 1 Plans, and Community Service. Fines and Fees Justice Center.

[2]Shannon, S., Huebner, B. M., Harris, A., Martin, K., Patillo, M., Pettit, B., ... & Uggen, C. (2020). The broad scope and variation of monetary sanctions: Evidence from eight states. UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review4(1).

[3] Bar-Ilan, A., & Sacerdote, B. (2004). The response of criminals and noncriminals to fines. The Journal of Law and Economics, 47(1), 1-17; Killias, M., Villettaz, P., & Nunweiler-Hardegger, S. (2016). Higher fines—fewer traffic offences? a multi-site observational study. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 22(4), 619-634.

[4]Mughan, S. (2021). Municipal reliance on fine and fee revenues: How local courts contribute to extractive revenue practices in US cities. Public Budgeting & Finance41(2), 22-44; Su, M. (2021). Discretion in traffic stops: the influence of budget cuts on traffic citations. Public Administration Review81(3), 446-458.

[5] Su, M. (2020). Taxation by citation? Exploring local governments’ revenue motive for traffic fines. Public Administration Review, 80(1), 36-45.

[6] CEO. (2021). The impact of criminal court and prison fines and fees in Philadelphia. City of Philadelphia.

[7] Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. (2020). Economic Injustice. Fines and fees hurt people, undermine public safety, and drive Alabama’s racial wealth divide Alabama’s racial wealth divide. Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

[8] Goldstein, R., Sances, M. W., & You, H. Y. (2020). Exploitative revenues, law enforcement, and the quality of government service. Urban Affairs Review56(1), 5-31.

[9] Borbon, M. (2021, April 27). New ACLU Report Finds Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspension Laws Impose Harm and Waste Resources. ACLU.; Mughan, S., & Carroll, J. (2021). Escaping the long arm of the law? Racial disparities in the effect of drivers’ license suspensions on offense probabilities. Southern Economic Journal87(4), 1366-1389.

[10] Mughan and Corroll (2020)

[11] Borbon, M. (2021, April 27). New ACLU Report Finds Debt-Based Driver’s License Suspension Laws Impose Harm and Waste Resources. ACLU.

[12] Rafael, M. (2021). The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government in Washington State. Vera Center on Sentencing + Corrections.

[13] Fishbane, A., Ouss, A., & Shah, A. K. (2020). Behavioral nudges reduce failure to appear for court. Science, 370(6517), eabb6591.

[14] O'Neil, M. M., & Prescott, J. J. (2019). Targeting poverty in the courts: Improving the measurement of ability to pay. Law & Contemporary Problems, 82, 199.

[15] Menyard, Y., Ume, C., DeWolf, E., & Daly, R. (2020). Price of Justice: Challenging the Future of Fines and Fees. Center for Court Innovation.

[16] Center for Court Innovation. (n.d.). It takes more than a tool to ensure fairness: A snapshot of ability-to-pay tools for fines and fees. Center for Court Innovation.