In too many places, there is a high price for access to justice. Across the country, state and local governments impose fines as punishment for everything from traffic and municipal code violations to felonies. Courts then tax people with fees, surcharges, and other assessments that fund law enforcement, the court system, and other government operations. Fines and fees for even a single incident can add up to thousands of dollars. People unable to pay these sums immediately may face steep penalties, including additional fees, driver’s license suspensions, revocation of voting rights, and even incarceration.
Fines and fees can keep people in a cycle of poverty, causing people to lose their jobs, their homes, and sometimes their children. The same monetary sanction that trivially inconveniences an affluent person can prevent a low-income family from paying the rent. In fact, fines and fees are often set without regard to a person’s actual financial situation. In short, they create a two-tiered system, placing justice out of reach for millions of people, including a disproportionate number of people of color.
The Fines and Fees Justice Index
Recognizing that fines and fees are an engine for economic and racial inequity, NCAJ convened a task force of experts from around the country to identify best policies to protect people’s rights. In all, NCAJ identified 17 policies that are critical to creating a fairer legal system that does not criminalize poverty and that respects people’s rights.
In 2020—and again in 2022—NCAJ researched state and local laws in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. and graded the jurisdictions on a scale of 0 to 100 according to how their policies measure up. 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 the performance of the states, we went to great lengths to acknowledge and credit good practice, even where it falls short our 17 benchmarks. In many cases, we gave states partial credit for policy approaches that represent progress relative to the dismal norms that prevail in many jurisdictions. To read more about the selection of the benchmarks and methodology, click here.
In short, no state did well. Only two states received more than 50 out of a possible 100 points and no state received a passing score. What’s more, the Fines and Fees Justice Index measures only laws on the books, not practice on the ground. In many cases, practices fall short of even the low bar set by the laws and court rulings.
There is, however, some cause for optimism. Almost every policy contained in the primary benchmarks has been adopted in at least one state, meaning that states seeking to do better need not invent new policies whole cloth. They can simply look to what other states are doing to adopt more rights-respecting policies. And in the two short years between when we began researching fines and fees policies and when we released the 2022 update, more than a dozen states took steps to eliminate fees, end harsh punishments for failure to pay, or otherwise improve their fines and fees policies. There is tremendous momentum for reform.
Explore our findings in detail below, including individual reports for all 50 states and Washington, D.C. To see how each state scored on every benchmark and for a list of citations, download the dataset.
State Scores and Rankings
Download State Reports
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||4|
|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||10|
|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||16|
|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||12|
|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||8|
|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||19|
|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||25|
|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||6|
|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||30|
|15||The state does not condition the expungement or sealing of records, on payment of fines or fees.||6||Collateral Consequences||11|
|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||23|