Fines and Fees

Some of you may know about the Fines & Fees Justice Center. My guess is, at least a number of you, may not. Former Judge Lisa Foster is a driving force behind the Center. Lisa is a friend of Judge Mark Kappelhoff. She served on the trial court in California for ten years and then  in the Obama Justice Department.

The web site for the Fees & Fines Justice Center is Here is the September FFJC Newsletter:

FFJC Newsletter, September 2018

FFJC In the News

For the Washington Post, FFJC Co-Director Joanna Weiss and Tzedek DC President Ariel Levinson-Waldman write in support of legislation that would end license suspensions for unpaid traffic debt in Washington, D.C. & require the DMV to restore suspended licenses. “Arresting people too poor to pay doesn’t make us any safer and does nothing to get fines and penalties paid. Rather, those arrests make us less safe by destabilizing families and by diverting law enforcement resources from crime.”

Fines and Fees Reform News

This month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will eliminate prosecution fees and prohibit cities from charging residents the cost of legal services used to prosecute them. This law is a direct result of excellent reporting from Desert Sun reporter Brett Kelman, who published a five-part investigative series about the harms of private prosecution firms hired by municipalities and related attorney’s fees in Coachella and Indio. The third part of that series details a lawsuit filed by plaintiff Ramona Morales, who paid $6,000 in attorney’s fees because of a chicken coop on her property.

Morales was represented by the Institute for Justice, who have created a fantastic video about the lawsuit.

In August, San Francisco’s Superior Court ordered the county to waive a staggering $32 million in fees owed by more than 21,000 residents. One formerly incarcerated man reports that this move will reduce his criminal justice debt from $2,725 to $640. The county projects that it will lose about $1 million annually as a result of this decision, and it will fill in the gap with budgetary allocations. In related news, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ Public Protection Committee recommended that the full board approve the elimination of court fees for people who are convicted of crimes. Alameda County eliminated juvenile fines and fees in 2016.
In the early days of 2018’s nationwide prison strike, Texas’ Department of Criminal Justice voted to reduce the cost of prison phone calls from $0.26 per minute to $0.06 per minute. In 2017, the phone system brought in $14.49 million for the crime victims’ fund and $4.49 million for general revenue. In related, less fortunate news, driver’s license suspensions are driving Texans deep into debt. Originally, the automatic license suspension policy was conceived as a funding mechanism for Texan trauma centers, but now many Republican and Democratic lawmakers are saying that this practice creates a “permanent underclass, dividing society by those who can pay the fines and those who can’t.”


In Tennessee, Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk announced that he will stop prosecuting driver’s license violations that result from failure to pay fines and fees, such as driving on a suspended license. This is an important example of how prosecutors can work toward reform, and other DAs should follow his lead. Until we stop suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees, prosecutors should stop wasting criminal justice resources on crimes of poverty.


In Maricopa County, AZ, Civil Rights Corps is representing plaintiffs who allege that the county attorney’s office pressures defendants in marijuana possession cases to participate in a diversion program that will cost them $950 plus weekly charges for drug and alcohol testing. The lawsuit claims that the county attorney threatened defendants with incarceration and six-figure fines unless they participated in the diversion program. In 2016, the Arizona Republic reported that legalizing marijuana would cost the county attorney’s office millions in diversion fees (about $1.6 million annually).


The Oregon Law Center is representing five plaintiffs who have had their driver’s licenses suspended for years because they can’t afford to pay their spiraling debt from traffic violations. They want a federal judge to order the state to halt license suspensions for traffic fines until the Oregon DMV gives drivers a chance to demonstrate their inability to pay. If a driver can’t pay the fines, they say the state should exempt that motorist from losing a license. The plaintiffs argue the state’s current suspensions violate the due process rights of low-income people and are discriminatory.


According to a new report from the Juvenile Law Center, the families of children charged with crimes can be directly billed or assessed fees to cover the cost of legal representation in all but 10 U.S. states. “Any time you touch the juvenile justice system, you need an attorney, while other costs are only implicated when a child is placed in custody or services,” said staff attorney Nadia Mozaffar.
For the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Selbin of the Berkeley Policy Advocacy Clinic — and an FFJC Advisory Board member — argues that California should cease collections for all juvenile detention fees. This piece comes as the LA County Board of Supervisors is expected to vote in September to cancel nearly $90 million in fees imposed on families that have had children in the juvenile detention system. In related news, last month the LAPD floated the “radical solution” of eliminating old bench warrants for homeless people to unburden crowded court dockets and create a way out of the vicious carceral cycle that plagues LA’s homeless population.



As you can see from this edition of the newsletter, there is a lot of activity around the country focusing on reforming when and how fines and fees should be imposed.  I am not suggesting that anyone revolt, but as you can see from just this newsletter there is a lot of activity on this topic around the country. Over the years we have seen a huge growth in fines, fees, probation costs, mandatory program cost assessments and surcharges throughout the country.  Anatole France once said, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” Each of us needs to decide where to devote our time and what issues to focus on. But the essence of a fair and effective criminal justice system surely is what unites us all. For what it is worth, I think we have a problem with fines and fees in far too many courts,  While there may not be any simple solution to this, to paraphrase the folks in recovery, the “first step is to admit you have a problem.”

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