In Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, the sheriff’s department has turned an old bank into a socially distanced payment location where residents can pay court fines and traffic tickets. “Drive-Thru ONLY,” the agency posted on Facebook.
In Tulsa, Oklahoma, officers continue to arrest people for failing to pay court debts—even ones more than a decade old—despite the public health risks involved in hands-on policing, according to the Washington Post.
And in Pima County, Arizona, David Rogers was notified in late March that the government is keeping his tax refund, which he needs to pay mounting bills. The reason: He owes $215 in court fees stemming from a drug paraphernalia charge, records show. “I am angered that the state thinks my family‘s and my lives are worth less than $300,” Rogers said.
Across the country, trials and hearings have been delayed or canceled to help stop the spread of COVID-19. But that hasn’t stopped many courts from continuing to collect fines and fees, even as millions of Americans find themselves out of a job and less able to pay up.
The coronavirus crisis has hit state and local coffers hard. Two main sources of revenue—sales taxes from now-shuttered restaurants and bars, and traffic tickets from now-empty highways—have cratered. This comes at a time when officials are straining to pay for, among other things, desperately needed medical equipment and unemployment benefits for record numbers of laid-off workers.
And as the next round of federal stimulus negotiations continue on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have resisted giving financial support to states and local jurisdictions. “The number is zero,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said recently in a radio interview. “We have no money.”
As a result, states are dipping into rainy-day funds, implementing hiring freezes and issuing new fines for violating orders to stay at home and wear masks. And some localities are already relying on a tried-and-true revenue stream: the court system and the predominantly low-income Americans who churn through it.
To be sure, states and cities depend on these payments even in normal times. More than $50 billion in fines for committing crimes, fees for using court, late fees and interest is owed to local governments nationally, according to some estimates.
And many jurisdictions have eased the burden of fines and fees in recent weeks. Maine dropped more than 12,000 warrants, largely for unpaid court debts. Chicago halted collections of late fees and other payments. California stopped garnishing people’s wages and taxes for overdue fines and tickets, among other new guidelines.
The Fines & Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization and clearinghouse of state and local court financial policies, is maintaining a list of all the jurisdictions that are putting off fines and fees for now.
Yet many local officials are not advertising or announcing that they are doing so, says Lisa Foster, the Center’s co-director. Citizens who have not noticed the new policies are still making payments online.
And advocates worry that most suspensions are only in effect for 30 or 60 days, meaning that poor Americans’ court debts—with interest in some cases accruing all the while—could kick back in right when they are really feeling the pain from the pandemic.
“Even if the economy recovers, there won’t be this one moment when we can say, ‘This is over, fines and fees are fair now.’ It was always an inequitable situation,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal advocacy and public policy institute.
“What we actually need is permanent cancellation of a significant amount of court debt,” she said.
That may be unlikely, Eisen said, given that many state legislatures do not significantly allocate money for their court systems because they know they can mostly self-fund through tickets, fines and fees.
The aftermath of the 2008 recession looms large for those worried about the escalation of fines and fees. Following that financial crisis, states and localities vastly increased both the types and the amounts of court payments to fill their budget gaps.
Jeffrey Selbin, faculty director of the policy advocacy clinic at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, notes that juvenile court fines and fees increased tenfold in nearby Oakland in the years since. “It’s taken a decade to challenge that,” he said. “And now we might backslide.”
Jalonda Hill, a community organizer in Buffalo, New York, who organized the Fair Fines + Fees Coalition there, points out that the communities with the highest rates of dying from COVID-19—low-income communities of color—are also those most affected by the previous recession’s fines and fees. “The last thing these families should be worrying about, when people are dying or having to show up at essential jobs they can’t do from home, is traffic tickets and administrative fees and filing fees,” Hill said.
Driver’s license suspensions, which more than 40 states issue to people with unpaid fines and fees, have also not been eased in most places.
Jeremy Owens, of rural northwest Alabama, has a suspended license because he has court debt for unpaid traffic violations and several bad checks that he wrote for groceries—all of which stemmed from being unemployed and living in a camper, he says.
Owens’s wife, Mary, has lung disease, diabetes and hypertension, which puts her at risk for dying from COVID-19 and means that she should go to the doctor regularly, he says. But he can’t drive her to any appointments, because his license is suspended because of his court debt. “If they caught me driving, they’d take my vehicle and leave us on the side of the road—or take me straight to jail,” he said.
Experts say that the states most likely headed for another surge in fines and fees are those that do not have income taxes: in other words, that do not have another major source of revenue other than the justice system. These include Florida, Texas and a half-dozen others. Many use court payments and traffic tickets to fill their general coffers, to update public buildings and to fund emergency services and medical research.
Yet fines and fees are a far less efficient way of funding government than taxation, many economists say. The Brennan Center has found that chasing down unpaid court debts from low-income people costs some states 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes.
“Instead of repeating the mistakes of the Great Recession,” said Foster of the Fines & Fees Justice Center, “we might use this as an opportunity to put the whole question of how we finance government on the table.”