Fines and fees are a routine part of criminal sentences. Many courts, however, fail to consider an offender’s ability to pay before assessing them.
In fact, offenders often are ordered to pay fines and fees beyond their means. If they fail, offenders may become trapped in a never-ending debt cycle. In some states, unpaid fines and fees lead to losing a driver’s license or an occupational license, further hampering the ability of offenders to earn a living and repay their debts. In other states, failure to pay leads to incarceration.
This is not how the criminal justice system should work. Being poor is not a crime. Offenders should not be set up for failure at sentencing.
Unfortunately, few courts take it upon themselves to consider an offender’s ability to pay. With state and municipal governments increasingly relying on fines and fees to generate revenue, it is crucial that state legislators act to ensure courts are not imposing excessive fines and fees.
What can state legislators do?
The Institute for Justice offers the Fines and Fees at Sentencing Act (FFSA). This model legislation, created in collaboration with the Fines and Fees Justice Center, requires courts to consider offenders’ ability to pay before imposing sentences that include fines and fees. It also offers all offenders the options to perform community service or use payment plans to satisfy financial obligations.
The FFSA distinguishes fines and fees, and provides different treatments for each.
Fees are civil obligations, such as court costs. They are not intended to be punitive.
Fines are criminal financial penalties, such as speeding tickets. Fines rightly are punitive, but they should not prevent an offender from completing a sentence and re-entering society. The FFSA establishes guardrails.
The FFSA requires a court to calculate an offender’s ability to pay based his income. When an offender provides this information, the court will use it to assess fines and fees. The model requires the court to compare the offender’s income to HUD’s “very low-income” standards to set the fines and fees the offender must pay.
Requiring realistic treatment of low-income individuals will level the scales of justice. And, in doing so, FFSA may benefit the state and its judicial system by increasing revenue, and decreasing future cases and prison populations.