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Certain states, including Arizona, have begun scrapping court costs and fees for people unable to pay – two experts on legal punishments explain why

Certain states, including Arizona, have begun scrapping court costs and fees for people unable to pay – two experts on legal punishments explain why
Several U.S. states are eliminating criminal fines and fees for people who can't afford them. Getty Images

In today’s American criminal legal system, courts impose fines and fees as a means to punish people and hold them accountable for legal violations.

At times, people are sentenced to pay without incarceration, but frequently people across the U.S. are sentenced to both jail time and fiscal penalties. Those costs are assessed by individual courts and include processing and filing charges, jury fees and fiscal penalties such as interest charges and late penalty fees. The collected money is then used to pay for costs such as the administration of court-appointed attorneys, probation, detention and diversion programs.

But these fines and fees are often levied without any consideration for an individual’s ability to pay – and can add up to thousands of dollars. Given the potential consequences of legal debt on people unable to pay, including the loss of the right to vote and further criminal infractions, we conducted a multistate study on the impact of fines and fees.

What we found is that these types of sanctions do not improve public safety or serve as an effective deterrent in reducing further crime. More troubling is that the negative consequences of fines and fees are disproportionately felt by people of color and those who are poor.

Because of these potential financial hardships and adverse effects, U.S. lawmakers have begun to limit the types and amounts of fines and fees that can be charged.

What the research shows

In our study of eight states – California, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Washington, Georgia, Missouri and Texas – we found extreme variations in how court-imposed fines and fees were used.

Some states had statutes mandating a minimum amount of fines and fees to be imposed on people for specific crimes and infractions; other states did not. Some local judges sentenced people unable to pay to jail as a violation of their sentence; other judges in different counties within the same state did not. To collect outstanding debts, some states even sued formerly incarcerated people for the cost of their room and board; other states did not.

In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, for instance, our research there showed that financial burden increased the chances among juvenile offenders to commit additional crimes within two years of their initial arrests.

In another statewide study in Florida, we found that fees increased recidivism and, in particular, that Black youth with restitution fees had a higher recidivism likelihood. Our study further found that Black and Hispanic youth tended to receive higher fees compared to white youth regardless of the alleged crimes. The average fees for Black juveniles was US$709.50, and $633.30 for Hispanic youths. In stark contrast, the average fees for white juveniles was $426.50.

A wealth of research has illustrated how unpaid court fines and fees force people to make decisions regarding housing, medical care, education and even food and medication.

In an April 23, 2023, letter, the U.S. Department of Justice warned court officials and state agencies that imposing fines and fees on offenders who cannot pay may result in them losing their jobs, driver’s license, right to vote or even their home.

Changes across the country

Depending on the crime, Arizona juveniles and their parents faced a slew of costs, including probation supervision fees, family counseling services, drug and alcohol screenings and even a $25 administrative fee for court-appointed attorneys.

But a new law says they don’t have to pay any of those anymore.

Though the law does not put an end to fines relating to restitution charges or driving under the influence of alcohol charges, it does eliminate all fees assessed by a juvenile court — for court-appointed attorneys, probation, detention and diversion programs.

A white woman stands in front of an American flag as she delivers a speech.
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs has eliminated various fines and fees for juvenile offenders.
Rebecca Noble/Getty Images

Arizona was not alone. Indiana, Illinois, Montana, California, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Virginia have also enacted similar laws that eliminate or reduce juvenile fines and fees.

As these states have learned, monetary sanctions do far more harm than good and inflict disproportionate hardship on those least able to pay them.

“These fees put unnecessary financial stress on children and their families when they should be focused on rehabilitation,” Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs said in October 2023. “They hold individuals back at a time in their life when what they really need is help moving forward.”

The Conversation

Alexes Harris receives funding from Arnold Ventures. She is affiliated with the Fines and Fees Justice Center as a board member.

Dr. Harris is the chair of the Washington State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (non-partisan, Federally appointed). She is also the faculty regent to the University of Washington Board of Regents.

Alex R. Piquero received funding from Arnold Ventures to undertake the study in Florida referred to in the article. Professor Piquero receives no funding at this time from any sources and no external sources of funding were used to prepare this piece.