Most people agree that paying a fine is a preferable punishment compared to incarceration or supervision. But because the impact of a fine is directly related to one’s ability to pay, fines and court fees can actually cause the greatest sting and the most severe punishment on poor Americans.
A federal court recently confirmed this.
A class-action lawsuit was brought against the state of Tennessee because state law did not require a court to examine the ability to pay a fine. The plaintiffs argued courts not considering the ability to pay denied Tennessean’s equal protection under the law.
Tennessee law required driver’s license suspension for failure to pay the totality of the fine within a year. Describing the law as “powerfully counterproductive,” Judge Aleta Trauger outlined how the mandatory suspension serves as a direct barrier, through loss of job and mobility, that stands in the way of actually paying the fine.
Judge Trauger’s decision acknowledges that the sting of justice should not be based on income brackets.
For a person making $100,000 a year, the imposition of a couple hundred dollars in fines and court costs may redress a wrong and deter future violations. The same fine, however, imposed on someone making minimum wage can result in a very different series of events.
For example, as seen in Tennessee lawsuit, many jurisdictions suspend drivers’ licenses if fines go unpaid. This applies even if the fine is in no way related to a driving violation. The thought behind these suspensions is that the looming threat serves as a powerful incentive to pay the fine on time. But it’s hardly effective for those who lack the ability to pay the fine in the first place.
For those unable to pay fines, the suspension results in a great burden.
Consider this: A person sentenced to a several-hundred-dollar fine that they are unable to pay ends up with their license suspended. The ability to drive to work is a lifeline, especially in rural areas without access to public transportation. Removing that lifeline results in an unfortunate choice between violating the law or giving up the job.
The first choice merely risks falling further behind in meeting legal obligations while the second means the fine will certainly not be paid. Although unconstitutional, many jurisdictions still jail individuals for failure to pay fines and fees, even when they have no ability to pay.
Earlier this year, U.S. News and World Report highlighted the imposition of jail time in Pennsylvania over unpaid court fines.
One of the cases discussed involved a 59-year-old unemployed woman who, just three months after being cited, was arrested and jailed overnight for failure to pay a ticket. Her elderly mother was able to scrape the funds together. The use of all these resources results, at best, in a zero-sum game wherein none of the sentencing goals are achieved.
No one should be placed in that position.
Excessive fines with aggressive debt collecting tactics create an incentive to rely on payment of fines to fund government operations. Everyone is familiar with the small towns where you follow the speed limit precisely or risk getting caught in a speed trap. The problem with relying on fines is the purpose of having laws in the first place is distorted.
Laws are meant to keep the public safe, and the punishment for breaking those laws should relate proportionately. But a municipal budget dependent on fines throws the balance off. The concern is no longer safety but rather securing income for the government.
This does not mean fines do not have a proper role in punishing criminals. In the right situation, a fine is sufficient and reasonable to address an offense. But courts need the tools necessary to distinguish between poverty and scofflaws. There is a world of difference between not meeting financial obligations as an act of defiance and simply not having the money to do so.
Options need to be available to sort between the two. Means tests should be employed to establish reasonable and achievable payment plans. For those who cannot pay fines up front. Providing options at the early stages of paying the fine would help the truly indigent met their obligations.
For example, some jurisdictions allow community service to suffice as a method of payment. Allowing for judicial discretion when addressing unpaid fines would give courts the ability to induce payment. Focusing on why a person is not paying their fines rather than ratcheting up punishments would return fines to their original purpose: tools used to protect public safety.
Additionally, we should remove profit incentives from governments that require debt collection as a priority, rather than justice.
Governments at all levels need to correctly proportion the impact that fines and fees have on those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.