US state and local governments use monetary fines to punish an extraordinary range of crimes, misdemeanors and other violations. And those punishments are often heavy-handed. Instead of serving as a relatively gentle accountability mechanism for minor offenses, fines have become a powerful engine of economic and racial oppression.
Across the country, state and local governments impose exorbitant fines defendants cannot afford. Later, they lock the same people up for “failing” to pay. Courts routinely impose predatory and abusive user fees on top of fines—charging people for the costs of their own prosecution, their own legal defense, even their own incarceration. Many officials have come to see fines and fees revenue as a politically expedient alternative to taxation, putting pressure on local courts to focus on extracting revenue from disadvantaged people instead of on doing justice.
NCAJ has identified a set of 17 policies we believe every state should have in place to rein in these abuses. These policies represent our vision of a minimally rights-respecting approach to monetary sanctions. They are grouped loosely into five issue areas:
- Abolition of harmful practices, like the imposition of predatory “user fees.”
- Steps to ensure that fines are cognizant of what a person can actually afford to pay.
- Elimination of unreasonably punitive consequences for non-payment of fines, like suspending drivers licenses and voting rights.
- Data collection and transparency, so policymakers and the public know what the human impact of fines and fees policies looks like and who shoulders most of that burden.
- Policies that mitigate the impact of fines and fees in light of the economic harm so many families have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
We researched the laws and policies of every US state to determine whether they have these policies in place. We use that information to give each state a score on a scale of 0-100 that reflects its overall performance. The policy benchmarks are weighted according to their relative importance. A state that met all of our policy benchmarks would earn a score of 100; a state that met none of them would earn a score of 0.
In assessing state performance, we went to great lengths to acknowledge and credit good practice, even where it falls short our 17 benchmarks. In most cases, we gave states partial credit for a number of different policy approaches that represent progress relative to the dismal norms that prevail in many jurisdictions. Even so, the results are strikingly bad. No state performs well.
What's more, even when a state has the right policies on the books, they may not translate into reality on the ground. Too often, courts disregard key safeguards or fail to implement them properly. The road ahead is a long one.
There is one very important point of optimism in our findings, however. 14 of our 17 benchmarks are met in at least a few states. And several states have at least taken tentative steps in the direction of the other three. This means that the good policy practices we are looking for do not need to be invented out of whole cloth. 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.
You can explore our findings in detail below and find an overview of their implications and importance here. For detailed information about our policy benchmarks, our reasons for choosing them, and the approach we took in identifying them, go here.
State Scores and Rankings
Compare State Scores
Benchmarks: Weights and Trends
|Number Sort descending||Question||Index Weight||Issues||Number of "Yes" States|
|1||The state has abolished all fees, costs, surcharges and assessments in all matters involving a violation of law. This includes but is not limited to charges for: i) appointed counsel; ii) probation or parole supervision; iii) electronic monitoring; iv) diversion programs; v) services such as treatment and drug testing; and vi) costs of incarceration including room, board and health care.||10||Abolition of Harmful Practices||0|
|2||The state has abolished all juvenile court fines, fees, costs, surcharges and assessments, including both those imposed on youth and those imposed on their parents, guardians or other responsible adults.||6||Abolition of Harmful Practices||1|
|3||The state has no fines, fees, costs, surcharges or assessments whose revenues are explicitly directed to support law enforcement or the courts.||6||Abolition of Harmful Practices||4|
|4||The state does not allow courts to use private collections firms to collect unpaid fines and fees.||3||Abolition of Harmful Practices||9|
|5||The state requires courts to conduct an ability to pay determination whenever they impose fines, fees, costs, surcharges or assessments.||6||Ability to Pay||12|
|6||The state requires the government to prove that a person’s failure to pay any fine, fee, cost, surcharge or assessment was willful, before incarcerating or imposing any other sanction on an individual for failure to pay.||10||Ability to Pay||21|
|7||The state has codified substantive standards that all state and local courts are required to use, giving clear guidance to judges on how ability to pay should appropriately be determined.||5||Ability to Pay||11|
|8||The state has codified standards that trigger a presumption that a person is indigent and unable to pay fines, fees, costs, surcharges or assessments, in cases involving a violation of law. This presumption must be triggered by at least one of the following: receipt of means-tested public assistance, income below an enumerated threshold, and/or eligibility for court-appointed counsel.||5||Ability to Pay||9|
|9||The state ensures that all judges have discretion to waive or modify all fines, fees, costs, surcharges or assessments based on ability to pay, at imposition or at any point afterwards.||8||Ability to Pay||15|
|10||The state mandates that anyone can choose to pay fines and fees on a payment plan if they cannot afford to pay immediately, without incurring any additional fees or interest charges.||3||Ability to Pay||4|
|11||The state has taken one or more specific steps to mandate, encourage or facilitate courts’ use of individualized fines (“day fines”) that are scaled according to both the severity of the offense and the individual’s economic status.||3||Ability to Pay||1|
|12||The state has codified a right to counsel in all proceedings where a person faces possible incarceration for failure to pay fines, fees, surcharges and assessments.||6||Ability to Pay||27|
|13||State law does not allow for the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines, fees, costs, surcharges and assessments; nor for failure to appear in court.||6||Collateral Consequences||4|
|14||The state does not condition restoration of voting rights on payment of fines, fees, costs, assessments, or surcharges, including any payments that are a condition of probation or parole.||6||Collateral Consequences||27|
|15||The state does not condition the expungement or sealing of records, on payment of fines or fees.||6||Collateral Consequences||12|
|16||The state collects and publishes key data at the state, county and municipal levels.||0||Data Transparency||0|
|17||The state has enacted at least one significant, temporary measure to mitigate the impact of fines and fees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This could include the waiver of outstanding court debt; the reduction or elimination of certain fines and fees; or the suspension of efforts to secure payment or punish non-payment of fines and fees.||5||COVID Response||21|