Press Releases

Nadler & Schatz Introduce New Legislation to Eliminate Excessive Court Fines and Fees that Target Low Income Communities

Washington, March 3, 2020

Washington, D.C. – Today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced H.R. 6061, the State Justice Improvement Act, legislation that will make lasting changes to America’s criminal justice system. Across the country, courts often impose fines, fees, and monetary bail without considering an individual’s ability to pay – disproportionately impacting low income communities and communities of color. This legislation will provide state and local courts with new and expanded federal funding opportunities to reform these monetary punishment policies. U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. Senate.

“Across the country, fines and fees imposed by courts disproportionately burden low income individuals and people of color,” saidChairman Nadler.“They are often excessive and limit economic opportunity and hinder prosperity in our communities. Developing best practices that help state and local courts implement effective alternatives for those who don’t have the ability to pay is a critical first step to reducing the harm of these unfair practices.”

“All Americans deserve equal treatment under the law, no matter how much money is in their bank accounts,”said Senator Schatz.“Our bill will help to end the cycle of poverty and incarceration, creating a justice system that treats people fairly and keeps our communities safe.”

Excessive court fines and fees disproportionately burden low income communities and communities of color. Individuals who are unable to pay face serious consequences, including more fees, license suspensions, extended probation, and incarceration– trapping people in the criminal justice system. As a result, they can lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children. In the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, the median size of the African American population in each city was greater than 5 times the median in the United States.

There is no clear evidence that support imposing fines and fees as a crime deterrent.In a survey across counties in Alabama, nearly 40 percent committed a crime to pay off their court debt. Moreover, monetary punishments are costly and inefficient. For example, counties in Texas and New Mexico spend more, or almost as much, enforcing fines and fees than the revenue it generates.

The State Justice Act is a meaningful step forward in creating a justice system that treats individuals fairly and ensures public safety. The legislation will help jurisdictions enforce constitutional and equitable policies by broadening the activities available for federal funding. The grants will be used to provide technical assistance and training to state and local courts as they develop effective alternatives to fines, fees, and bail payments, should a person be deemed unable to pay. The bill also requires the State Justice Institute to conduct a study on the effectiveness of these grants and to provide a report to Congress with appropriate policy recommendations

As many state and local courts across the country have started to reform their fines, fees, and bail policies, a number of best practices have emerged. In 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) outlined seven constitutional principles for the enforcement of fines and fees. In 2017, a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that DOJ’s guidance prompted critical reforms in a number of state and local courts, and provided a guiding set of principles for which there was bipartisan consensus.

The State Justice Improvement Act has been endorsed by #cut50, the Brennan Center for Justice, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Fines and Fees Justice Center, and R Street.

For a copy of the bill, clickhere. A summary of the bill is availablehere.