Fines and Fees Reform is the Next Frontier in Social Justice

With every penny accounted for, Marissa and her husband sat in my office with detailed budgets to figure out how they could pay her medical bills. I had became a certified financial counselor at a nonprofit helping low-to-moderate income communities, my community, build financial stability. By all accounts, this family had done everything right, yet they could not afford to pay Marissa’s bills.

When Marissa was diagnosed with cancer, she pulled money from retirement funds, suffering tax consequences, and her family’s emergency savings were drying up. Their fear of getting sent to collections for late payments on medical bills was so great that they were budgeting at a minute level, every expense accounted for. They were ineligible for public benefits because of her husband’s income and assets like their car and savings. The time they were spending worrying could have been spent focusing on Marissa’s healing.

Arguably, Marissa and her husband were in a much better position than other low-income people that encounter the unexpected costs life throws at them. This inspired my motivation to change policies to help people better weather unexpected financial storms. As a Nevadan, I came to California to attend Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy to learn about creating a more inclusive economy.

Communities of color are twice as likely to be low-income and are disproportionately impacted by systemic race and criminal justice issues such as higher stop rates. There is no doubt that communities of color suffer the most from fines and fees assessed by the criminal justice system, like traffic citations, municipal fees for late property taxes or water bills, or private debt fees for late payment of medical debts or child support.

The collection of these fines and fees (and little awareness of fee waivers, alternative payment programs, and inefficiencies of some of these programs) further exacerbate financial instability within communities of color, and the resulting inequality of wealth between communities of color and white communities.

The collection of delinquent fines and fees has negative mental and physical health effects on people; this has been recognized by financial counselors, legal organizations, and advocates. There are many people like Marissa, who, in an effort to avoid the stress of collections, are forced to sacrifice their personal health. Thankfully, we see movement forward through legislation from places like the City of San Francisco to eliminate all criminal justice fees, a much needed relief to communities and individuals that have been subject to these fines and fees.

Ways to provide relief for individuals struggling with paying fines and fees include:

  • Relieve people from criminal debt with a history of nonpayment; stop reporting criminal and civil debt on credit reports. Debate continues as to whether or not this should be limited to fines for non-violent acts.
  • End collection of criminal justice fees entirely for anyone who can’t pay, especially through government-private agencies partnerships, since private agencies have been notoriously and historically predatory.
  • Have municipal or county governments, courts, and private agencies partnering with organizations assist people in gathering proof of income (or lack thereof) documentation, which can be used to accurately assess someone’s ability to pay fines and fees. This can lead to fees being waived, alternative forms of payment (like education or counseling opportunities), or payment plans.

Solutions like these can help families like Marissa’s focus on prioritizing health and family needs, without stressing about paying fines and fees, especially since these fines and fees are largely irrelevant for county revenue.

My work with CRC, in collaboration with organizations from California, Illinois, Maryland, and North Carolina, has focused on an analysis of third-party debt collection for government-created debt, the furtherance of debt, and Ability to Pay reform in California counties.

I am honored to do this work, not only for the communities I identify with as a person of color, but for people like Marissa and her husband, whose stories and struggles haunt me. I invite all of you to learn more about these issues and support organizations like CRC to ensure that someday, we will see a more equitable world where fines and fees don’t have the ability to devastate people’s lives.