Fine & Fee Initiative
Local governments across the country rely heavily on criminal fines and fees to fund their criminal justice system operations. Since 2010, 48 states have increased civil and/or criminal fees assessed on defendants. As a result, there have been more individuals who fail to pay a fine or fee can go to jail and accumulate debt that can never be repaid. There is a growing movement among policymakers to reduce or eliminate this revenue source. For some, the cost to maintain the system of fines and fees (e.g. staff to manage collections, law enforcement effecting arrests and jailing people for unpaid debt, and judges and prosecutors handling these cases on their dockets) exceeds the benefit of the revenue. For others, litigation or justice-related concerns are propelling a desire for change.
As elected officials turn away from fines and fees from the criminal justice system as a revenue source, budget and finance directors will need to take the lead to maintain revenue levels and/or identify cost savings. To reduce reliance on fines and fees, local governments need support in developing plans that allow reforms to go forward without a negative fiscal impact.
In June 2019, CJSF announced three major U.S. counties as partners in an effort to reduce or eliminate their reliance on criminal fines and fees as a revenue source. The following three counties were selected through a competitive process to receive technical assistance from CJSF made possible by a $1.2 million Arnold Ventures grant:
Dallas County, Texas
- County Leadership: Judge Clay Jenkins and Dallas County Commissioners Court
- Population: 2,622,79
The largest of CJSF’s three Fine & Fee pilot jurisdictions, Dallas County ranks as the second most populous county in Texas (and the ninth in the entire country) with over 2.6 million residents. During the application process and throughout the stages of this effort, Dallas County has exhibited strong executive support. County Judge Clay Jenkins identifies fine and fee reform as a top priority, on par with bail reform, which the county is currently pursuing as well.
Prior to joining the Fines and Fees Initiative, Dallas County had already begun to address the financial impact of the criminal justice system on defendants and their families. In 2017, the Texas legislature passed SB 1913, which took steps to reduce debts on, and detention of, low-income people unable to pay standard criminal fines and fees. In 2018, a federal judge issued a temporary order to Dallas County, giving them 30 days to stop imposing pre-set bail bond amounts. In response, the County implemented a new risk assessment tool and invested in its Pretrial department to ensure that individuals eligible for no- or low-cost release can secure release. Finally, since Judge Jenkins took office in 2011, he has taken a primary role in addressing fines related to truancy by first ordering that magistrates reduce the maximum fine imposed on families, then supporting state legislation to decriminalize truancy, thereby eliminating all fines.
Related News Articles from Dallas County:
- Dallas Morning News | Dallas County Studying Whether It Can Reduce or Eliminate Criminal Fees, Fines (July 5, 2019)
- WFAA | New Study Will Help Dallas County Explore Eliminating Criminal Fees and Fines (June 26, 2019)
- NBC-DFW | Fewer Fines on Criminal Defendants Could Help Taxpayers (July 26, 2019)
Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee
- County Leadership: Mayor David Briley
- Population: 691,243
The capital and largest city in Tennessee, Nashville is the county seat of Davidson County and operates under a consolidated city-county government. The County’s commitment to reform as well as its history of innovative data collection and sharing made them a strong applicant for CJSF’s Fines & Fees Initiative. Mayor David Briley, along with the Clerk of Court Howard Gentry and other high-level policy and finance officials, are highly engaged in the technical assistance. The Mayor has framed this effort as a move towards equitable and sustainable revenue streams. This project is one step toward ensuring economic empowerment and upward mobility among all residents, particularly low-income communities and communities of color.
In the years prior to joining the Fines and Fees Initiative, Nashville supported or launched a number of local initiatives related to equity and inclusion. A 2017 report by Nashville’s Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee recommended an impact analysis of court fines, fees, and taxes as one way to increase financial literacy, empowerment and capability for residents. And in the following year (2018), the County made several strides forward including eliminating a $44 per day jail fee and launching an initiative called “Steering Clear” a cross-departmental driver license diversion program to reduce caseload, reduce arrests, and reduce fines. In the four months after the launch of Steering Clear, driver license citations dropped 54%.
In addition, the Clerk of Court created a compliance division responsible for clarifying payment expectations, creating payment plans, and assessing indigency — ensuring residents who are unable to pay fines are identified earlier in the process.
Related News Articles from Nashville-Davidson County:
- The Tennessean | Nashville Mayor David Briley Favors Cutting Court Fines and Fees (June 3, 2019)
- Nashville Public Radio | Nashville Aims To Ease Court Fines And Fees With Help Of Outside Consultant (June 3, 2019)
- Nashville Scene | Briley Announces Study of Fines and Fees in Criminal Justice System (June 3, 2019)
Ramsey County, Minnesota
- County Leadership: Board of Commissioners (Chair Jim McDonough) and County Manager Ryan O’Connor
- Population: 547,974
Serving as the county seat to the state capital, St. Paul, Ramsey County is the geographically smallest and most densely populated county in Minnesota, as well as one of the most densely populated counties in the U.S. Criminal fine and fee reform is heavily supported by County leadership, including County Manager Ryan O’Connor, the Board of Commissioners, and additional other high-level policy and finance leaders. Fines and fees are part of a larger County effort to increase equity; during the application process, County officials referred to reducing fines and fees as a way to address racial equity in the justice system, and to more broadly address the intersection of public health and justice.
Prior to joining the Fines and Fees Initiative, Ramsey County demonstrated its commitment to addressing this issue. In 2017, the Sheriff’s Office eliminated a $25 per day booking fee at the Adult Detention Center that had only a 25% collection rate, and in 2018, the Court eliminated its bail schedule altogether, moving the basis for bail determination to a standardized risk assessment tool, rather than predetermined offense amounts. Also in 2018, Community Corrections reduced its supervision fee 50% (from $300 to $150) for clients on administrative probation for DWI offenses, and added an option to waive fees for people who have completed probation.
Related News Articles from Ramsey County:
- Minneapolis Star Tribune | Ramsey County Joins National Effort to Reduce Reliance on Criminal Fines (June 5, 2019)
- KWLM 96.3 | Ramsey County Joins National Effort To Reduce Reliance On Fines (June 6, 2019)