Is assessing fines and fees an effective way to administrate justice? Does doing so result in less crime? Lower recidivism rates? Or does it come down unfairly on the poor? Should communities pay for part of their court administration costs with fines and fees? What does it mean when our justice system is partially a collection agency?
These are all important questions with no easy answers. The independent, nonpartisan think tank the Brennan Center for Justice, which is affiliated with New York University School of Law, has been looking at the issues. Although very little official information is available directly from courts, the center was able to perform an illuminating analysis of one aspect of the use of court fines and fees. How much does it cost jurisdictions to assess and collect those fines and fees?
For context, consider that the state of Texas spends about $0.31 per $100 collected in tax revenue.
By contrast, the Brennan Center estimated that the average cost of collecting court fines and fees is $0.41 per dollar. That’s more than 100 times the cost of collecting tax debt in Texas.
That average cost estimate is probably low, especially considering the increased costs associated with collecting the debt during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fewer people can afford their criminal justice debt, and fewer collectors are actively working on collecting it.
Criminal justice debt is going uncollected — and is uncollectable
Consider the case of California. In 2016, that state reported that it had accumulated $12.3 billion in unpaid criminal justice debt. According to the state legislative analyst’s office, so much of that debt had fallen on the poor that most of it would not be worth the cost of collection. In legal circles, we refer to this debt as “uncollectable,” because the people involved will never be able to pay it, no matter how much pressure is put on them.
Now, however, the California legislature is considering canceling much of that uncollectable criminal justice debt. One of the arguments against doing so is that it would mean the loss of potentially hundreds of millions in revenue. That argument does not consider the cost of collecting that debt.
Ultimately, the Brennan Center found that few jurisdictions keep track of collection costs at all. They don’t keep a tally of how much it costs to hold a hearing on the defendant’s ability to pay, as is required by the Constitution. They don’t consider how much it costs to serve nonpayment warrants, handle fee and fine compliance, or even to jail those who are in nonpayment.
What else could we be doing with those resources? Could we use them to make our justice system more effective and less costly?