Understanding Fines, Fees, and the Funding of Public Services

Note: The following appeared in the 2020 Liman Center Reports as an overview of the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law’s work at the intersection of public finance and monetary sanctions, an issue underscored by the events of Ferguson, Missouri starting in 2014.

In 2014, the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, set off waves of protests. As these protests gained momentum in the weeks after Brown’s death, community groups and organizers were clear that the issues were both the excessive, racialized use of force by police and the culture in which authorities harassed, arrested, and incarcerated low-income people of color — in particular, Black people — by accusing them of traffic violations and other offenses.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) then documented the extensive discriminatory practices and brought a lawsuit that ended in a settlement. DOJ found that the funding of government services in Ferguson was heavily dependent on criminal and traffic fines and fees — in 2013, the city had budgeted 13 percent and in 2015, 23 percent of its revenue to come from fines and fees. To meet these targets, police officers, prosecutors, and judges aggressively pursued fines and fees from poor and vulnerable residents. Indeed, the DOJ learned, local authorities evaluated job performance based on how much revenue individuals brought in.

Addressing a National Issue

Ferguson was not an isolated case, although its reliance on fines and fees was dramatically high. While some jurisdictions, like Ferguson, rely heavily on these revenues to fund the government, other jurisdictions lose money or barely break even when the costs of administering and enforcing payment systems are considered. For individuals and families who  have  to  pay, the costs  —  often called “legal financial obligations” or “monetary sanctions” — impose undue burdens that put some people into unending cycles of debt. Moreover, people who cannot pay these fines and fees can lose their licenses, voting rights, jobs, homes, or children.

The Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law has long focused on access to justice in both criminal and civil systems. With support from Arnold Ventures, the Center has now expanded its work to address the intersection of public finance and monetary sanctions. The Center joined with the Fines & Fees Justice Center and UC Berkeley’s Policy Advocacy Clinic to host a series of colloquia and to disseminate materials on the role that fines and fees play in systems of public finance and what structural reform might involve. The colloquium, After Ferguson: Money and Punishment, Circa 2020, looked back on what we have learned about public finance, criminal systems, and monetary sanctions since the death of Michael Brown. Experts in municipal costs detailed how, in some jurisdictions, the exploitative efforts target the poorest individuals to fund government services.

Framing Fines and Fees as a Matter of Justice

Given the pandemic and the nationwide protests against the killings of George Floyd and many others, discussions of the role of money in punishment has taken on new urgency. The 2008 recession prompted some state and local governments to expand their reliance on fees, and current budget pressures are acute. Understanding how public finance, fines and fees, and racial and economic justice intersect is critical. Hence, the Liman Center, Fines & Fees Justice Center, and the Policy Advocacy Clinic have produced two new volumes that bring these issues together. Fees, Fines, and Funding Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform focuses on the way in which the use of fines and fees has become a public finance issue that warrants additional attention and scholarship. Money and Punishment, Circa 2020 is a compilation of recent research, litigation materials, legislation, and policy developments aiming at reforms. These volumes follow two previous compilations of readings that explore the use of monetary sanctions, Who Pays? (2018) and Ability to Pay (2019).

These volumes highlight important policy innovations in this area. For example, in California, efforts to reduce government reliance on fines and fees started with mobilization by several groups, including the Policy Advocacy Clinic, to end certain fees in the juvenile justice system. That effort led to legislation in 2017 to prospectively eliminate all juvenile fees, such as charges for detention, monitoring, and drug testing. Advocacy efforts continued. In 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation that ended all juvenile fees retroactively and ended a large number of adult criminal fees. These reforms offer a template for other juris- dictions. As a 2019 report by Berkeley’s Policy Advocacy Clinic made clear, “California became a national model for progressive youth justice when it abolished fees, offering the promise of debt-free justice for young people and their families. The rest of the country is watching as the state and counties implement this landmark policy, so California must get it right.”

Former Liman Fellows have been instrumental in pressing for changes elsewhere. In Louisiana, Ivy Wang ’13, who was a Liman Fellow in 2013 and is now a Senior Staff Attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, works for a commission to implement important legislation to reduce fines and fees and to recommend changes to the statewide structure of the funding of courts. In Texas, 2014 Liman Fellow Emily Gerrick ’14 succeeded when the legislature enacted a statute to end drivers’ license suspensions for failure to pay certain fees and, in lieu of looking to those people for money, increased fees for car insurance companies.

COVID-19 has made relief from court debt  urgent, and some jurisdictions have provided relief from fines and fees on top of the other economic pressures created by the pandemic. The Fines & Fees Justice Center has issued a set of COVID-19 policy recommendations, which includes discharging all outstanding fines and fees, ending debt collections, and suspending interest on unpaid debts.

Turning Research Into a Curriculum for Change

To build on the work of the last few years, and with the support of Arnold Ventures, the Liman Center, Fines  & Fees Justice Center, and Berkeley’s Policy Advocacy Clinic have an ambitious effort underway. We aim to ensure that the expertise of public finance experts is accessible to lawyers, judges, legislatures, and community advocates seeking reforms and that, in turn, public finance researchers are knowledgeable about how money is used in and by the legal system.

Throughout the coming year, the Liman Center will host workshops that build on and expand research focused on the intersection of public finance and legal reforms of fines and fees. The goals are to develop a community that is interdisciplinary, to provide seminars, and to make a curriculum on these topics accessible to a wide audience throughout the country.