Schatz Pushes Legislation to Address Court Fines, Fees

March 3, 2020, 8:47 AM HST (Updated March 3, 2020, 8:47 AM)
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US Sen. Brian Schatz introduced legislation that would eliminate excess court fines and fees that target low-income communities.

On Tuesday, Schatz presented the Justice Improvement Act, which he believes will make lasting changes to America’s criminal justice system. Across the country, courts often impose fines, fees and monetary bail without considering an individual’s ability to pay, disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color, a press release from Schatz’s office stated.

Schatz’s proposed legislation will provide state and local courts with new and expanded federal funding opportunities to reform these monetary punishment policies.

“All Americans deserve equal treatment under the law, no matter how much money is in their bank accounts,” said Schatz. “Our bill will help to end the cycle of poverty and incarceration, creating a justice system that treats people fairly and keeps our communities safe.”

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced companion legislation in the US House.

“Across the country, fines and fees imposed by courts disproportionately burden low income individuals and people of color. They are often excessive and limit economic opportunity and hinder prosperity in our communities. Developing best practices that help state and local courts implement effective alternatives for those who don’t have the ability to pay is a critical first step to reducing the harm of these unfair practices,” said Nadler.

Individuals who are unable to pay court fees and fines face serious consequences, including more fees, license suspensions, extended probation, and incarceration – trapping people in the criminal justice system. As a result, they can lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children. In the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, the median size of the African American population in each city was greater than five times the median in the United States.

There is no clear evidence that supports imposing fines and fees as a crime deterrent, the release states. Defendants released from custody with no financial penalty return to court at the same rate as defendants released on financial bond.

“…Monetary punishments are costly and inefficient. For example, counties in Texas and New Mexico spend more, or almost as much, enforcing fines and fees than the revenue it generates,” according to the release.

The State Justice Improvement Act is a meaningful step forward in creating a justice system that treats individuals fairly and ensures public safety. The legislation will help jurisdictions enforce constitutional and equitable policies by broadening the activities available for federal funding. The grants will be used to provide technical assistance and training to state and local courts as they develop effective alternatives to fines, fees, and bail payments, should a person be deemed unable to pay. The bill also requires the State Justice Institute to conduct a study on the effectiveness of these grants and to provide a report to Congress with appropriate policy recommendations.

“The issue of fines, fees, and bail reform is something that the Hawaiʻi courts and other justice stakeholders here in the islands have been examining and building upon over the years. While we have made progress to improve the current system, there is still much work to be done. This bill would provide resources and assistance to allow interested states, like Hawaiʻi, to make meaningful and lasting improvements to their state justice systems. We appreciate Senator Schatz’s leadership on this issue, and thank the State Justice Institute for helping to foster efficient and innovative state courts,” said the Honorable Mark E. Recktenwald, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Hawaiʻi.

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