John Jay’s Center of Media, Crime & Justice Tackles Fees and Fines

John Jay’s Center of Media, Crime & Justice Tackles Fees and Fines

John Jay’s Center of Media, Crime & Justice Tackles Fees and Fines

Fines and fees are the monetary amounts and punishments imposed on an individual who commits a crime or other offenses. They affect local communities across every state and in different stages of the criminal justice system. To speak about the impact of fines and fees, John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime & Justice (CMCJ) held a Cash Register Justice Event on March 7 and 8. During his welcome speech, Stephen Handelman, Director of the CMCJ, highlighted the importance of conferences like these. “What we hope will be produced out of these conferences is an ongoing network of information between the media and criminal justice experts to continue talking, learning and educating yourself about the alternatives and innovative strategies that are being used to change the current system of fines and fees,” said Handelman. The two-day conference featured panels covering topics such as: The Media and Cash Register Justice, The Incarceration Trap, and the Costs of the Juvenile Justice System, offering journalists the chance to listen to criminal justice experts and encourage them to share the information to promote change.

(left to right) Panelists Marc A. Levin and Joanna Weiss watch as Alexes Harris speaks during the panel
(left to right) Panelists Marc A. Levin and Joanna Weiss watch as Alexes Harris speaks during the panel

“In virtually every state and in thousands of local communities across the country at every stage of the justice system, from arrest to conviction, during incarceration and probation, fines and fees are imposed. And, they are imposed on millions of people, many of whom cannot afford to pay and most of whom are people of color.”—Lisa Foster

The Hidden Costs of United States’ Justice
Moderated by Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the first panel included Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, and Marc A. Levin, vice president of criminal justice police for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Foster began by speaking about who fines and fees affect. “In virtually every state and in thousands of local communities across the country at every stage of the justice system, from arrest to conviction, during incarceration and probation, fines and fees are imposed,” said Foster. “And, they are imposed on millions of people, many of whom cannot afford to pay and most of whom are people of color. It can only be described as a tax on justice.” She continued, speaking on the current status of the U.S. criminal justice system. “Our best estimate is that in the U.S. each year, there are 45 million traffic tickets issued,13 million misdemeanor cases, and between four and five million felony cases. In every single one of those, fines and fees are assessed,” said Foster. “Depending on the jurisdiction, the money collected likely totals billions of dollars. The money outstanding—money where fines and fees have been imposed but not collected because the people can't pay them—is well over 50 billion dollars.”

Lisa Foster, co-director, Fines and Fees Justice Center
Lisa Foster, co-director, Fines and Fees Justice Center

Passing the mic to Harris, she spoke on how the monetary system is embedded in what she called the “exceptional” U.S. system of justice. “As many of you probably know, incarceration has expanded 500 percent since 1974. One in 115 adults were in jail or prison in 2015, and 2.2 million people are in jail or prison currently and 4.6 million people are on probation or parole. That's close to seven million people on supervision, just controlled in some way,” said Harris. Explaining why she believes the U.S. criminal justice system can be considered “exceptional,” Harris said that it’s because the system targets communities of color. “One in 17 black men, one in 42 Latino, and one in 92 white men age 30–34 are in prison. Black women are two times that of white women. And, Latinas are 1.2 times of white women,” she said. “Three percent of the adult population, 15 percent of the African American adult male population has been to prison. Eight percent of the adult population and 33 percent of the African-American adult male population has a felony. If you think about it, one in three black men have a felony conviction.”

“Incarceration has expanded 500 percent since 1974. One in 115 adults were in jail or prison in 2015, and 2.2 million people are in jail or prison currently and 4.6 million people are on probation or parole. That's close to seven million people on supervision, just controlled in some way.”—Alexes Harris

Speaking on the consequences of monetary sanctions, Harris made sure that the audience understood that these consequences are purposeful and not collateral. “Our policymakers at the state level have decided to purposefully expand and increase the types of fines and fees that can be assessed to individuals. And, knowing that they're going to link the rest of their lives to the criminal justice system in connection to this debt,” explained Harris. While listing the consequences of monetary sanctions, like being re-incarcerated for non-payment and the economic consequences of debt, Harris told a story about the toll it can take on a person. “For the study of my book, A Pound of Flesh, I sat in a clerk's office. There was this one guy who came to make a payment for his wife who was disabled at home,” said Harris. “He was giving some money and was told that that wasn't what he owed. He said 'I know I'll get the next $100 by Christmas bonus.' The clerk said okay and gave him a receipt and told him to keep the receipt on him. He then asked if they were going to come knocking—meaning if they were going to come knocking on the door and put his wife back in jail. This is the fear that people have.”

Alexes Harris, professor of sociology, University of Washington
Alexes Harris, professor of sociology, University of Washington

Weiss, presented next. Adding to Harris’ presentation, she stated how the incarceration rate over the past 40 years has gone up by 400 percent and how the United States has about 25 percent of the incarcerated population in the world. While she highlighted the sharp increase in incarceration and its costs to counties and states over the past three decades, she made sure that the audience knew that the biggest change happened with Ferguson, Missouri. “In 2014, the city of Ferguson exploded. A police officer killed a young black man called Michael Brown, and night after night the community gathered in protest,” said Weiss. “What the community and that unrest showed us was the public distrust of law enforcement and the entire criminal justice system.” After many nights of protests, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division decided to conduct an investigation into what was occurring in Ferguson. What they discovered was the link between the municipal courts, the police department, and the Mayor’s office. 

“The city was using the justice system, from police to the courts and even the jails, as a way to raise a substantial part of the revenue for the town of Ferguson. The police were ordered by the city to fill the revenue pipeline by issuing tickets which they largely did in black communities in Ferguson,” said Weiss. “In a single traffic stop, police could issue up to six citations. Those tickets were adjudicated in the municipal court and if you missed a payment or if you missed a single traffic date, there was a warrant issued for your arrest. When DOJ conducted their investigation, the town of Ferguson had 21,000 people and it had 32,000 open bench warrants for people's arrests.” Weiss pointed out that this wasn’t just occurring in Ferguson. Looking at Buffalo, New York, Weiss stated that between 2014–2017, 17 percent of traffic stops were for tinted windows which were seven times that of speeding. However, when looking at the causes of vehicle accidents, speeding was the factor of 1,753 crashes whereas tinted windows were only to blame for two.

Joanna Weiss, co-Director, Fines and Fees Justice Center
Joanna Weiss, co-director, Fines and Fees Justice Center

Adding on to Weiss, Levin spoke about why everyone—regardless of what side of the political spectrum you fall in—should care about the effects of fines and fees. “First of all, this is a government imposition on people, similarly to taxes. Those on the right really hate taxes. And, then there's the flip side, that for every night that someone is in jail, its $80 a night that the tax payers are paying. There are some jurisdictions that have pay-to-stay, where we charge people in jail for every night that they are there and try to collect it, said Levin. “But also it trades off in restitution. From a conservative’s perspective, if I steal from you the most important thing is that I pay you back and not have the government's prerogative come first.” He also spoke about child support, and how fines and fees prevent people from paying. “There are billions of dollars that people released from prison owe in child support and if you believe that child support is important, you have to prioritize that,” Levin said. “If the person is the primary caretaker for a child and they have to pay fines and fees to the government, they won't be able to take care of the child. It puts them back in a vicious cycle.”

Marc A. Levin, vice president of criminal justice police, Texas Public Policy Foundation
Marc A. Levin, vice president of criminal justice police, Texas Public Policy Foundation

Alternatives and Solutions for Fines & Fees
After days filled with panels speaking on the fines and fees, debt, and its implication on the individuals within the criminal justice system, the Cash Register Justice Event, had one last panel to round out the two days. The topic? Alternatives and Solutions. Moderated by Handelman, the panel included Anne Stuhldreher, Director of Financial Justice City and County of San Francisco, Jon Wool, Vera Institute of Justice, Beth Colgan, UCLA Law School and Brook Hopkins, Executive director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Policy Program.

Anne Stuhldreher, Director of Financial Justice City and County of San Francisco
Anne Stuhldreher, Director of Financial Justice City and County of San Francisco

Stuhldreher, began, speaking about the work that the Financial Justice Project has done that can be used as a guide for other cities. “San Francisco was the first place in the nation to get rid of all our fees that we charged to people exiting the criminal justice system. We wrote off $32 million in debt that was hanging over 21,000 people. We cut toll fees in half for lower income people and we cut boot fees by more than 80 percent.” She also spoke about those who used payment plans to pay their parking tickets. “You had to pay $65 to get onto the payment plan and then the ticket would double through late fees,” Stuhldreher said. “We cut the payment plan fee to five dollars and got rid of the late fees for lower income people. The idea was that if we could make things easier for people to pay, they will pay. Three months after doing this, the percent of people getting on payment plans, went up by 400 percent and the amount of revenue coming into the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency went up as well.” Extending support to the homeless, Struhldreher mentioned the program that the DA of San Francisco program which offers the homeless social services to eliminate any citations  they have.

Jon Wool, Vera Institute of Justice
Jon Wool, Vera Institute of Justice

Wool, on the other hand, offered a solution that not many expected. Speaking about the work he’s doing in New Orleans, Louisiana, he told the audience that fines and fees should be eliminated. “We are going for eliminating the fines and fees all together. There's simply no justification and with the legal situation in Louisiana, you'll see that it's not legal in any state because it is so structured to benefit not just the system actors in general, but the judges themselves,” stated Wool. “There should be an all or nothing question in mind in terms of fines and fees, and anyone who wants to do a little less than all, it's good and fine, but we should imagine a world where we don't tax the most vulnerable members of our community.” Wool mentioned Louisiana’s current state-wide reform that mandates the ability to pay. “The state-wide reform mandates ability to pay, precludes extending probation for non-payment, you can only do it once for six months, and limits the monthly payment to the salary of one day's work. It has all the elements for the ability to pay framework,” he said.

“We should imagine a world where we don't tax the most vulnerable members of our community.”—Jon Wool

Even with this, Wool noted that there are some problems with the current reform. “First, this reform keeps getting pushed back because the judges don't want their money being tampered with,” said Wool. “Second, they made it in the end apply only to felonies. It's a strange thing. You can only be more punitive to misdemeanors when you know it's not about punishment or accountability, it's just about the money and the money is in misdemeanors.” He also mentioned that what occurs on the state level isn’t helpful to New Orleans and vice versa. With some last remarks, Wool and everyone on the panel acknowledged that while some work has been done to reform the fines and fees system, more work needs to be done especially to eliminate hurting those in lower income and minority communities.