The Impact of Fines and Fees on Families

Overview from the Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt

Posted January 15, 2022, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The image is a close-up of a judge's gavel lying on its side on top of its block. A blurry image of the judge's hand is in the background.

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.

Geor­gia

Help­ing Geor­gians Man­age Gar­nish­ment Actions
By Geor­gia Watch

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.

North Car­oli­na

The City of San­ford Equi­ty Task Force Find­ings and Recommendations

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.

Ten­nessee

Crim­i­nal Jus­tice Fees & Fines: 11 Options for Ten­nessee Pol­i­cy­mak­ers
By The Sycamore Institute

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. 

Four Ways to Improve Tennessee’s Crim­i­nal Fee and Fine Data Infra­struc­ture
By The Sycamore Institute

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.

Texas

Dri­ven by Debt — The Fail­ure of the Omni­base Pro­gram
By Texas Apple­seed and Texas Fair Defense Project

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.

Addi­tion­al Debt Resources

Med­ical Debt Resource Roundup
How Stu­dent Debt Hurts Young Adults of Color

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