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Schatz, Nadler Reintroduce Legislation To Eliminate Excessive Court Fines And Fees That Target Low Income Communities

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawai‘i) reintroduced the State Justice Improvement Act, legislation that will make lasting changes to America’s criminal justice system. Across the country, courts often impose fines and fees without considering an individual’s ability to pay – disproportionately impacting low income communities and communities of color. This legislation provides state and local courts with new and expanded federal funding opportunities to reform these monetary punishment policies. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“All Americans deserve equal treatment under the law, no matter how much money is in their bank accounts,” said Senator 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.”

“All Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve equal access to our nation’s criminal justice system,” said Chairman Nadler. “Sadly, numerous courts across the nation impose excessive fees and fines which have failed to improve public safety, and instead have placed an undue burden on low-income communities and communities of color. Our legislation will help address these injustices so that we take a step toward bringing an end to the poverty to prison pipeline, and restore public trust in our criminal justice system.”

According to available state data, the national court-related debt total is at least $26.7 billion. Excessive court fines and fees disproportionately burden low income communities and communities of color. Individuals who are unable to pay 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.

In addition, the practice can be both costly and inefficient for cities and counties. Some counties in Texas and New Mexico, for example spend an average of 41 cents to collect every dollar of revenue raised from fines and fees. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that supports imposing fines and fees as a crime deterrent. In a survey across counties in Alabama, nearly 40 percent of individuals committed a crime to pay off their court debt.

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 and fees, should a person be deemed unable to pay, as well driver’s license suspensions. 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.

In the Senate, Schatz’s legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). 

The bill has been endorsed by the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, Business Roundtable, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Fines and Fees Justice Center, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Operation Restoration – Safety and Freedom Fund, R Street Institute, and The Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

“Now more than ever, courts must scrutinize those practices that disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color, including the imposition of fines and fees. Hawai‘i courts have been carefully considering these issues over the years and are working to improve the current system. This bill would provide the support states need to make positive systemic changes and promote the equitable administration of justice. We are grateful to Senator Schatz for his commitment to this issue, and we thank the State Justice Institute for their ongoing efforts to improve the quality of justice in state courts,” said the Honorable Mark E. Recktenwald, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Hawai‘i.

“We are encouraged by the proposed amendment to the State Justice Improvement Act to improve the constitutional and equitable enforcement of fines and fees, as well as improve the practices and ensuring their equitable use. In 2017, the Commission’s Targeted Fines and Fees against Communities of Color report found that municipal ordinance violations disproportionately impacted poor communities and communities of color. The Commission made several recommendations to address those discrepancies, and we are pleased to see that several have been incorporated into this amendment.  The proposed amendment recognizes an injustice and aims to fix it. It gives us hope that we are on a path to narrow the inequitable impact that municipal fines and fees have on poor communities, and communities of color. And by communities, we mean the people who live in them.  Justice in any democratic society is measured not solely by how the rich and powerful fair but rather on how the law treats those without those statuses,” said Debo P. Adegbile, Commissioner at the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

The full text of the bill is available here.