Criminal fines and fees, in addition to trapping poor people in a cycle of debt and incarceration, are an incredibly costly source of revenue for local governments, according to a new report.
Texas spends a fortune every year squeezing fines and fees out of criminal defendants. In 2017 alone, the state dumped at least $150 million into court and jail costs associated with absolving court debt. While local governments managed to recoup nearly half a billion dollars in fees and fines, every dollar of revenue collected cost at least 32 cents, spent on either chasing down and processing fees and fines or jailing people in lieu of payment.
In recent years, Texans have also racked up a mountain of debt in the form of unpaid fees and fines that, at last count, totaled at least $742 million. A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University analyzed collections and costs related to court debt in Texas and two other states, and found that criminal fees and fines—on top of disproportionately punishing poor people—are a lousy way to fund a core government function.
“The amount of uncollected debt that is on the books and growing is kind of jaw dropping,” said Matthew Menendez, a Brennan Center attorney and the report’s lead author. “Collecting one dollar in fee and fine revenue costs more than 100 times what the IRS or the state of Texas spend to collect tax revenue.” The report recommends that states shift to taxpayer funding of court operations.
Court fines and fees appear to be inefficient revenue generators for the same reason they trap poor people in a cycle of debt and incarceration—many people can’t pay them. For the report, Brennan Center researchers watched more than 1,000 court proceedings across Texas, New Mexico, and Florida and rarely saw judges consider whether defendants could actually afford the fines and fees imposed on them. As the pile of court debt keeps growing, cities and counties spend millions each year jailing people to satisfy outstanding fees and fines—the most expensive way to enforce collections and a kind of punishment for poverty that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional half a century ago. About 14 percent of court fines and fees imposed in Texas are resolved through jail credits, according to the report. Researchers estimate that the state spent more than $825 million on jail stays related to court debt between 2012 and 2018, an average of more than $137 million a year.
Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice policy at the influential conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the state’s current collection practices are often a barrier to rehabilitation and waste resources that would be better spent elsewhere. “This kind of eat-what-you-kill model is not really providing sustainable revenue and it’s distorting the system,” Levin told the Observer. “The system ends up being more focused on collecting money from people than public safety or rehabilitation.”
Texas officials are aware of the problem, in part thanks to civil rights lawsuits filed across the state. In recent years, a bipartisan coalition has developed around reforming court fees and fines and pushed changes aimed at reducing the burden on indigent defendants. One law the Texas Legislature passed in 2017 directed judges to conduct ability-to-pay hearings, allow waivers or reductions of fees and fines, and offer alternatives to jail sentences for poor defendants who can’t pay. This year, the Texas Legislature unanimously approved ending the notorious Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), which prevented more than 1 million drivers from renewing their licenses due to hefty and recurring fines and surcharges for traffic offenses ranging from speeding to driving without insurance.
Despite that momentum, Texas’ dependance on a system of court fines and fees that disproportionately punish poor people has proven tough to shake. In Travis County, for instance, judges in 2016 imposed about $32 in fees and fines for every resident in the county, far more than every other jurisdiction the Brennan Center studied; the county also spends about 35 percent of what it does collect from defendants on court and jail costs associated with resolving that court debt. As the Victoria Advocate recently reported, even with the DRP repeal, many Texas drivers may still not be able to renew their licenses due to unpaid fines and fees. And while more judges may be offering alternatives to jail time, Texas still incarcerates about half a million people every year for failure to pay.
While lawmakers passed promising reforms giving judges more latitude to waive or reduce fines for indigent people, the high number of defendants who continue to resolve court debt with jail time in Texas shows that people’s ability to pay is still often not being considered, according to Amanda Woog, director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “Unfortunately, judges aren’t using these tools as much as they need to be,” she said.
Woog also said the numbers reported in the Brennan Center analysis should spur Travis County and other jurisdictions across the state to figure out ways to wean themselves off criminal fines and fees—which Dallas County is currently doing. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt welcomed the idea, saying she wants a “deeper dive” into the county’s collection practices after reading the report. “We’ve known for some time that the true costs of collection are higher than the benefits of collection,” she said.
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