National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School Releases First-Ever `Fines & Fees Index’
Every state earned a failing score, though index reveals promising signs of policy reform
- Index measures 50 states and Washington D.C. against 17 essential practices for ensuring fines and fees are fairly and equitably applied
- State of Washington earned the highest score, with a 54 out of 100; Wyoming scored a 3, ranked 51st
- Fines and fees are too often used to generate revenue from people who can’t afford to pay them, trapping marginalized populations in the criminal justice system for minor infractions
NEW YORK, May 18, 2021 -- The National Center for Access to Justice (NCAJ) at Fordham Law School today announced the release of the Fines and Fees Index, a first-of-its-kind measurement of U.S. states’ performance against a comprehensive set of standards for ensuring fines and fees are applied in a way that is fair and equitable.
Measuring the performance of the 50 U.S. states and Washington D.C. against 17 policies NCAJ believes every state should have in place to rein in abuses, the Fines and Fees Index creates a pragmatic, nonpartisan roadmap for reform. It is rooted in several core principles: fines should be proportionate both to the severity of an offense and to a person’s financial capacity; no one should be punished for “failing” to pay a fine they genuinely cannot afford; and states should abolish harmful practices including the pervasive “user fees” that are wielded to extract revenue from poor litigants.
“Fines and fees are the ugly underbelly of the justice system, because state and local governments saddle the most marginalized people in our society with punishments they can’t afford,” said Chris Albin-Lackey, NCAJ legal and policy director. “Millions of low-income people get trapped in the justice system simply because they cannot afford fines and fees, and no U.S. state currently earns a passing grade for how it approaches this important issue.”
The Fines and Fees Index is an extension of the NCAJ’s Justice Index, which debuted in 2016 and today was updated for the second time. The Justice Index provides data-driven benchmarks against which states are measured on best policies for civil access to justice.
“We hope the Fines and Fees Index, with its vision of a rights-respecting approach to monetary sanctions, shines a bright spotlight on this national crisis of justice, offering insight into where and how improvements can be made,” said David Udell, NCAJ founder and executive director.
The project, supported by Arnold Ventures, looked at thousands of data points to create scores on a 100-point scale. A team of attorneys at the law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed helped lead the intensive legal research across every US state, and the research received additional pro bono support from the firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.
The state of Washington, while still earning what can be characterized as a failing grade of 54, had the best score despite its many failings, including harsh punishments for people who struggle to pay their court debts. Wyoming, with the nation’s lowest score of 3, is doing almost nothing to protect litigants from abusive fines and fees.
Other noteworthy findings include:
- The results transcend both geography and political leaning. For example, after Washington, the highest scores came from Oklahoma (Score: 49/Rank: 2nd), Rhode Island (48/3rd), New Jersey (46/4th), Massachusetts (42/5th) and Utah (41/6th), while Alabama (5/50th), Arkansas (6/49th), Kansas (7/48th), Delaware (8/47th) and Florida (12/46th) were among the worst performers.
- Delaware, the home state of U.S. President Joseph Biden, earned a “yes” score on just two of the 17 best practices. President Biden’s campaign platform, like that of most democratic candidates leading up to the election, specifically called out fines and fees as a serious issue needing attention.
- 24 states -- including many that lean heavily Democratic-- still restrict the voting rights of people who have unpaid fines and fees debt, a practice that tends to disenfranchise poor and minority voters
- Areas of momentum in recent years included several states curbing or abolishing outright the harmful practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees. More than 10 million Americans have suspended driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines or fees, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center. Driver’s licenses loss often prevents people from working, meaning they cannot pay their fines and fees, creating a spiraling effect that leads to a mountain of debt and often, criminal entanglement with the justice system.
There is a significant connection between fines and fees and policing -- sometimes called “policing for profit”. Following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that out of about 21,000 Ferguson residents, 16,000 had arrest warrants for unpaid fines and fees. This opened the nation's eyes to the fact that law enforcement practices too often focus not on public safety, but on revenue generation.
“People are being punished in ways they can’t afford, as a fine that amounts to a nuisance for a person with money can be the complete undoing of a low-income person’s life,” said Albin-Lackey. “The good news is that every state could arrive at a much better and more rights-respecting approach to fines and fees simply by emulating policies other states already have in place.”
To learn more about and explore the Fines and Index, visit ncaj.org/state-rankings/2020/
The National Center for Access to Justice works to advance the principle that everyone should have a meaningful opportunity to be heard, secure their rights and obtain the law’s protection. It uses research, data and analysis to expose how the justice system fails to live up to that ideal and, all too often, functions as a source of oppression. NCAJ works to identify and promote practices that can improve access to justice, and measures existing laws and policies against those goals.