Here’s Why and How Cities Across the Country Are Reforming Fines and Fees

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Medium on 06/30/2021 by Priya Sarathy Jones & Anjali Chainani

Every day across the country, traffic tickets, court fines & fees and fees in jails and prisons generate revenue for city governments. In many jurisdictions, fines and fees are viewed as just another source of funds to keep government functioning. But there are large hidden costs associated with some of them. First of all, many fines and fees harm the economic prospects of vulnerable residents, disproportionately impacting people of color in ways that sustain or exacerbate inequality and poverty. It is important to note that fines and fees are different. And while a low level fine may have some role in our adult systems, the only purpose of a fee is revenue to fund governments.

When faced with more aggressive enforcement measures — such as jail time or loss of a driver’s license for failure to pay court fines and fees — people who cannot afford to pay often resort to dire measures. A survey by Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice of Alabamians with court debt experience, found that 83 percent of people had given up necessities like food, car payments and child support to pay court debt. Of those surveyed, 38 percent admitted to having committed at least one crime to pay off their court debt. About 20 percent of those whose only previous offenses were traffic violations admitted to committing more serious offenses, including felonies, to pay off their traffic tickets. Traffic tickets can have a multiplying effect on the financial health of poor drivers unable to pay tickets, one study found.

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