Alicia Bannon ’07 Shapes the Conversation on Fines and Fees
While a 2009–10 Liman Fellow in the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, Alicia Bannon ’07 coauthored “Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier To Reentry,” one of the first national studies on fines and fees. Thirteen years later, Bannon had the chance to again work with co-authors Rebekah Diller and Mital Nagrecha when the New York University Law Review Online asked them to respond to Bernadette Atuahene’s recent article, “A Theory of Stategraft,” which advances the concept of “stategraft” to describe situations in which “state agents transfer property from persons to the state in violation of the state’s own laws or basic human rights.” The resulting essay, “Reflections on Fees and Fines as Stategraft,” outlines how fees and fines in the criminal justice system can be characterized as stategraft and explores the value of this concept for social movements.
“It was a nice opportunity for us to look back over the past decade-plus and reflect on how the field has evolved,” Bannon said. “It’s remarkable to see how much sophisticated and ambitious advocacy is happening in states across the country. There has been a lot of creative strategic litigation and legislative campaigns, as well as work engaging with courts to use court rules and other processes to reform their systems.”
After her Liman fellowship, Bannon spent two years as a John J. Gibbons Fellow at Gibbons P.C. in Newark, New Jersey, where she litigated a wide range of civil rights cases in state and federal court. After her time at Gibbons, Bannon returned to the Brennan Center, where she has held a variety of roles over the past 11 years, including serving as the managing director of the Center’s Democracy Program and managing its redistricting reform work. She now directs the Center’s new Judiciary Program, leading a team of lawyers and researchers working to realize a fair and inclusive judicial system. She recently spearheaded a new initiative, State Court Report, a nonpartisan news source, resource, and commentary hub covering state constitutional developments in high courts across the 50 states. It features commentary and analysis from academics, practitioners, judges, and journalists, as well as the State Case Database, a searchable collection of significant state constitutional law decisions from recent years.
“My time as a Liman Fellow was incredibly formative. It was my entry point to an organization where I’ve built my career and it’s where I first gained exposure to using policy advocacy as a tool to address broken systems of democracy and justice.”
—Alicia Bannon ’07
“My time as a Liman Fellow was incredibly formative,” Bannon said. “It was my entry point to an organization where I’ve built my career and it’s where I first gained exposure to using policy advocacy as a tool to address broken systems of democracy and justice.”
Bannon often reflects on the experience of writing the criminal justice debt report, which included working with several Liman students to collect information about fees and fines practices in 15 states.
“We could see how the fines and fees dynamics were actually playing out in practice, including how they created endless debt cycles and pathways to incarceration,” Bannon said. “The thing that was the most striking wasn’t the law as written but the law as practiced.”
Governments have long imposed fines and fees, as the 2010 report documented, but the impact was not in focus for many policymakers. Yet for individuals subjected to these fees, the toll was heavy.
“Plenty of people in states across the country were seeing this stark injustice playing out in courtrooms,” Bannon said. “At that point in time, the Brennan Center was hoping to put together a report with a national focus and really raise the profile of fines and fees as a serious issue and talk about some of the trends that we were seeing in our work in individual states.”
In the years since “Criminal Justice Debt,” an array of researchers, advocates, and government officials have taken up the issue. One leader is the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which in 2022 launched a nationwide campaign with the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity to eliminate all fees in the justice system. The Brennan Center’s 2010 report continues to be a key resource.
This April, the Department of Justice announced new guidance for state courts in a “Dear Colleague” letter, which aimed to help localities abide by federal constitutional and statutory requirements. That guidance cited the Brennan Center’s 2010 report and was announced at the 26th Annual Liman Colloquium, “Budgeting for Justice: Fiscal Policy and Monetary Sanctions.” Bannon attended the colloquium, which gathered a diverse group of participants working to reduce and eliminate the financial burdens imposed by courts. The event, held at Yale Law School, was co-convened by the Liman Center, the Brennan Center, The Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Bannon’s work continues as she joins others with the goal of eliminating fines altogether.
“There have been some tremendous victories since we did that study, but there's so much more to be done,” she said.