The Impact of Fines and Fees on Families
Overview from the Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt
Though household debt affects millions of Americans, it is particularly burdensome for those living in the South — especially Black and low-income families. Often, this debt stems from court and motor vehicle-related fees and fines.
In Alabama, for example, a recent survey revealed that 83% of respondents, all of whom had incurred court fees, had forgone food or rent to pay down their court debt.
Through the Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt (SPRD), the Annie E. Casey Foundation is increasing awareness of the harm created by these and other types of burdensome debt while advocating for solutions that benefit residents in southern states.
Resources on Debt Fines and Fees
Below, you’ll find materials from across the SPRD network that delve into the issues surrounding fines and fees, along with solutions to mitigate them.
Consumer advocacy watchdog Georgia Watch has released a policy paper that examines garnishment practices in Georgia and recommends state-level policy changes. This paper provides real-life examples, statistics, research and expert knowledge of garnishment practices in the state and how those practices impact the lives of residents.
In 2021, the North Carolina Justice Center provided policy recommendations to the Sanford City Council’s racial equity task force related to criminal justice fines and fees. The recommendations adopted by the task force include:
- creating a program to address long-term, debt-based driver’s license suspensions;
- recruiting members of underrepresented communities for leadership-level employment positions within city government;
- pivoting police presence from driving patrols to on-foot patrols to encourage a greater sense of safety; and
- constructing a youth center for recreation and mentoring programs to deter young people from falling into criminal activity.
While fines and fees are a central part of Tennessee’s criminal justice system, they often have unintended side effects that make it harder for some people to be productive and contributing members of their communities.
The Sycamore Institute released a new report on fines and fees, outlining ways that policymakers could seek to better understand and address the challenges that these practices create.
The Institute has also released its recommendations for improving Tennessee’s criminal fee and fine data infrastructure. The report notes that incomplete data make it hard for the state to track charges and that more robust data would help Tennessee policymakers better understand and address unintended consequences of criminal fees and fines.
In their findings, the Institute recommends:
- developing clear standards for data collection and availability;
- creating a centralized repository so that data is available and accessible to researchers and the public;
- providing local authorities with the resources, training and infrastructure needed to comply with new reporting requirements; and
- evaluating new data infrastructure programs and redesigning as needed to ensure they remain effective, efficient and useful.
This updated report finds that the OmniBase program — used by courts across Texas to stop drivers from renewing their licenses with holds until any outstanding fines have been paid — causes harm through punitive and compounding fees. It also notes that OmniBase fails to increase revenue, one of its key functions.
The report compares the collection rates between jurisdictions that do and do not participate in the OmniBase program, examines possible reasons the program has not demonstrated improved collection rates and offers recommendations for what local governments can do to improve compliance rates.