Considerable research has uncovered the financial burden and unintended consequences wreaked on the people charged with paying fines and fees. Yet there has been little, if any, investigation into how much debt is outstanding or delinquent nationwide. Without this information, it is not possible to accurately evaluate the true impact of fines and fees as a source of government revenue or, more importantly, as a financial burden on those who owe court debt. The absence of data also results in the absence of accountability for policymakers and justice system stakeholders who support and enact harmful fines and fees policies. As such the new study titled Tip of the Iceberg: How Much Criminal Justice Debt Does the US Really Have? by the Fines and Fees Justice Center is a must-read for every single legislator and advocate across the country.
Key findings of the report include:
- The national court debt total is at least $27.6 billion.
- Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia did not provide court debt totals for various reasons: 10 states stated that they did not track the information, 10 states and D.C. claimed that they did not possess the technological capacity or bandwidth to gather the information, four states denied the data request for various reasons, one state suggested the data was available but could not be easily compiled, and one inquiry was inconclusive.
- Only 14 states provided the total amount of court debt owed to them for the four case types requested. An additional 11 states provided partial information.
- A majority of U.S. states lack oversight of their local courts, and these municipal courts exercise autonomous power, causing collection procedures and record keeping to vary across the jurisdiction.
- From the data provided, Washington had the highest per capita debt ($426) followed by Virginia ($363), California ($347), Oregon ($344) and Iowa ($312).
- The debt balance that states report may not reflect the total amount that is owed because some states do not account for money that the court does not expect to collect. For example, New Hampshire’s debt total does not reflect its full accounts receivable balance because the state does not carry an allowance for debt that is deemed uncollectible.
- The astonishing lack of data on outstanding court debt strongly suggests that state and local governments do not have a basic understanding of how the fines and fees imposed by their courts are affecting people in their state or the state’s bottom line.
Some suggestions of the report include:
- The total amount of fines and fees imposed, assessed, collected, and outstanding should be reported annually by a statewide agency in every state and D.C. The data should be made publicly available and should include debt owed to local/municipal courts, state courts, and county and city governments.
- All court fees, surcharges and costs should be eliminated. Fees (or surcharges) are extra costs that the government attaches to every conviction — even traffic tickets and minor infractions. Fees exist only to raise money for state and local governments. The justice system is supposed to serve everyone and should be paid for fairly and equitably by everyone.
- Fines and fees should be deemed uncollectible three years after they are imposed, and both public and private collections should cease. Attempting to collect this debt after three years is a waste of government resources and continues to harm low-income communities and communities of color.
- The number and amount of fines must be reduced. The tens of billions of dollars of outstanding debt demonstrate the staggering burden fines and fees place on low-income communities and communities of color. People cannot afford to pay the amounts imposed, and extracting this money from our most vulnerable communities has devastating consequences.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center continues to do fantastic work around the country but at a moment where racial and economic justice reform are so prevalent. At a moment where we are looking to ease the burdens imposed on our small businesses, it is frustrating to see so many municipalities, including New York City, going in the wrong direction.
To listen to our interview with Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Director Joanna Weiss, click here