Stimulus Checks Aren't Enough; We Need to End Court Fees

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Each year, millions of people who are caught in the U.S. criminal legal system—a disproportionate number of them Black, Indigenous, or people of color—pay billions of dollars in fines and fees related to their criminal cases. At a moment when the country is taking dramatic steps to reduce hardship, many are at risk of being left out of the recovery because they owe hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars to courts, jails, prisons, and probation departments.

These counterproductive fines and fees impose a financial burden on the people who owe them and can create a community-wide drain on resources when families and broader social networks are needed to help pay. They’ve also lessened the impact of anti-poverty efforts in previous years. In 2015, for example, New Orleanians—many of them Black, brown, and poor residents of the city—paid $4.5 million in fines and fees. This was $1 million more than city residents received in cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

Owing fines and fees can prevent a person from achieving any kind of financial stability. One study in Alabama found that more than 80 percent of the people who owed court debt gave up basic needs like food, rent, medical bills, car payments, and child support in order to pay it. Interviews with people who owe fines and fees show how criminal legal debt burdens all aspects of their lives. In New Orleans, a man named Keith reported the amount of stress his thousands of dollars of court debt created in his life:

Wake up in the morning, that’s all you think about. “How can I pay this off?” ‘Til the time you go to bed. “What can I do? What can I do? Where can I make a large amount of money that I can get this from behind me?” Every day, every minute that’s what I think about . . . . That’s all I’m thinking about right now, nothing else. “What can I do?"

A person paying probation fees in Texas also expressed that the amount they owed in fees crowded out other basic needs in their budget:

I do without sometimes. I pick and choose what I eat. When I’ve worked in fast food I’ll take home what we didn’t use. Get on the ramen noodle diet. Get a box of 12 for 2 dollars . . . . Don’t buy shoes. Don’t buy extra clothes. I need two hearing aids. I’ve been taking the money I have saved up for hearing aids to pay for this [probation].

What would happen if instead of collecting money in fines and fees, we left that money in people’s pockets? Research on cash assistance programs can provide us with some clues. Studies on the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit have shown that cash infusions for low-income families improve children’s health and educational attainment. One study from Stockton, California, found that families who were given cash payments spent the money on basic needs, with food representing the largest category of spending. These families were better prepared to handle a financial emergency and were more likely to have a full-time job than those who did not receive the money.

We have a good idea what would happen if, instead of charging people caught in the criminal legal system hundreds of dollars for court fees, we allowed them to keep that money. They would use it to buy food, pay rent, seek needed medical care, or afford childcare. They would have more financial stability, allowing them to make longer-term plans instead of scrambling month-to-month. And we might expect them to experience less of the toxic stress that so often accompanies poverty in the United States, leading to happier and healthier families and thriving communities.