Special Edition: A look at court fee/fine/cost legislation in the 2017 session

One of the topics that has gained national attention in the last several years has been the issue of court fees, fines, and costs associated with low level criminal offenses as well as civil violations. The Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and the Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) formed a National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices to address the ongoing impact that these legal financial obligations (LFOs) have on economically disadvantaged communities and to draft model statutes and court rules for setting, collecting, and waiving court-imposed payments.

Over the course of the next several days, I’m going to be looking at how state legislatures are attempting to address the issue. Over 100 pieces of legislation have been filed in over 20 states to examine this topic, and I’ll be looking at them state-by-state.

Overall, there are several themes coming out of statehouses this year

Judges must make determinations of inability vs. unwillingness to pay: Several bills address the unwilling/unable to pay dynamic and require judges to make the determination at time the fee/fine/cost is assessed or to hold a hearing before a determination is made that the failure to pay is willful.

Making automatic presumptions for inability to pay: Several states are considering creating standards that certain individuals, for example those on any sort of means-tested welfare, are automatically assumed unable to pay (vs. unwilling to pay).

Allow judges to waive or reduce fees/fines/costs: Reducing the number, or amount, of mandatory fees/fines/costs to a level that the individual is capable of paying.

Ending use of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay: the subject of litigation in several states, these bills would end or curtail the automatic suspension of a license for non-payment.

The need for more study: several states have introduced legislation to ask the judiciary or to create legislative study commissions to look at this issue and either report back recommendations (in general) or to review the myriad of existing fees/fines/costs.