In 2016, a court in Lexington County, South Carolina ordered Twanda Marshinda Brown, a single mother who worked at Burger King, to pay $2,300 for two traffic offenses. Although she told the court she could only afford to pay $50 each month, the judge ordered her to pay $100 in monthly installments. Ms. Brown managed to make the payments for five months but she fell behind when her son was hospitalized and several checks from her employer bounced. The sheriff’s office arrested her for failure to pay, and the judge—this time without determining her ability to pay—ordered her to pay $1,900 immediately or go to jail. Unable to scrape together the money, Ms. Brown spent 57 days in jail because she could not afford to pay fines and fees from traffic infractions
Every day, stories like Ms. Brown’s repeat around the country. For people with means, fines and fees—which courts impose for everything from traffic and municipal violations to felonies—may be a mere inconvenience. But for people who are poor or working class and cannot pay immediately, like Ms. Brown, these charges may lead to years of ruined credit, suspended driver’s licenses, voting rights revocation, and even incarceration.
For that reason, in 2021 the National Center for Access to Justice researched fines and fees policies in all 50 states, ranking and scoring the states on the degree to which they protect the rights of litigants. The Fines and Fees Justice Index, created in consultation with experts from around the country, ranks the states on whether their laws and rules match 17 primary benchmarks and 46 secondary benchmarks. These measures ask whether the state has eliminated some of the most pernicious fees, such as fees for “free” appointed counsel, and whether judges must consider a person’s ability to pay any time they order fines and fees, and whether the state suspends a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay.
Now, NCAJ has created an update to the Fines and Fees Justice Index. In short, the findings are sobering. Out of a possible 100 points, only two states—Washington and Rhode Island—received more than 50 points, and no state received a passing score. Alabama, which ranked last in the nation, received only 7 points total.
There is, however, cause for optimism. Since 2021, when NCAJ released the first Fines and Fees Justice Index, a dozen states have passed new laws that eliminate unjust fines or fees, stop the ill-advised practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees, or reduce the practice of extracting money from people simply unable to pay.
Delaware made the greatest strides on fines and fees policies. In 2021, the state ranked 47th in the nation on the Fines and Fees Justice Index—a fact that advocates and lawmakers used as a primary argument for change. On October 3, 2022, the governor signed HB 244, an omnibus bill that, among other things, ended the practice of charging children fines and fees and halted suspensions of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees. The new law moves Delaware from near last to 23rd on the Fines and Fees Justice Index.
In addition to documenting the progress states have made on fines and fees policies, the new Fines and Fees Justice Index includes a new feature: 51 “State Policy Reports”—one for each of the 50 states and another for Washington, D.C. These reports show clearly and simply how each state fared, and what it needs to do to improve. The reports provide a diagnostic tool to advocates and lawmakers seeking to improve fines and fees policies but unsure of where to start. Each report offers a roadmap for adopting best policies, and examples of other states that have already adopted them so that states seeking reform need not reinvent the wheel.
To learn more about the Fines and Fees Justice Index 2022 findings and to see each of the state reports, visit https://ncaj.org/state-rankings/justice-index/fines-and-fees. For more about NCAJ, visit NCAJ's website.