May 18, 2022
By Bill Raftery
Court fees and fines remain a topic of discussion and debate throughout the U.S. In the last year alone, three states have moved towards examining and addressing these legal financial obligations (LFOs) and how the courts, legislatures, law enforcement, and others can address the issues surrounding them.
Alabama: Under a new law enacted in 2022, local municipal courts will be required to report fees and fines data to the state’s Administrative Office of Courts (AOC). SB 282 as introduced would have integrated municipal court systems with the state court system and created a searchable database of cities’ fine revenue. The amended SB 282 requires that cities report their information, including the total court cases in a fiscal year and revenue collected by a municipal court and where the revenue is allocated each year to the state AOC. It will then be posted online for the public. The bill comes amid reports and concerns over the use and possible misuse of municipal courts in the state to raise revenue for localities.
Illinois: For the second time in the last decade, a special task force will look at court fees and fines in the state. The first task force operated from 2015-2016 when the state legislature passed the Access to Justice Act that created the Statutory Court Fee Task Force. That Task Force concluded, among other things, that “[t]he nature and purpose of assessments have changed over time, leading to a byzantine system that attempts to pass an increased share of the cost of court administration onto the parties to court proceedings.” In 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court created a second task force to make a thorough review of the Criminal and Traffic Assessment Act including the various statutory fees imposed or assessed on criminal defendants and civil litigants, and the fiscal impact of the new civil and criminal fee schedules.
Washington: The Judiciary issued two reports The Price of Justice: Legal Financial Obligations in Washington State (2022) and The Cost of Justice: Reform Priorities of People with Court Fines and Fees (2021) that examine the issue of fees and fines. Key findings include:
- The vast majority (80-90%) of criminal defendants who come to court are indigent.
- Washington’s system of LFOs is complicated and extensive, with more than 155 separate and distinct court fines and fees that can be imposed. Some LFOs are mandatory and must be imposed regardless of ability to pay.
- Nearly all Washington district and municipal courts utilized collection agencies for collection of unpaid court debt. The collection agencies are authorized to impose sizeable interest and fees, and are not required to consider ability to pay.
Many of the items and aspects of these state activities follow-on the multi-year National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices created by the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA).
How is your state addressing the issue of fees and fines? Share your info with us at Knowledge@ncsc.org or call 800-616-6164. Follow the National Center for State Courts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Vimeo.