Fines and Fees Justice: How Cities Can Prioritize Fines and Fees Reform During COVID-19

Takeaways from What Works Cities and Fines and Fees Justice Center’s Two-Part Webinar

By What Works Cities and Fines and Fees Justice Center

What Works Cities (WWC) recently partnered with the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) on a two-part webinar series designed for local governments and policymakers interested in learning how reliance on fines and fees is counterproductive to the economic well-being of states and municipalities. The series also shared best practices from some of the cities and states that have recently implemented reforms in this area.

Currently, fines and fees are trapping millions of people in the U.S. in a cycle of poverty and punishment. When someone can’t pay something as simple as a parking ticket, it can often lead to driver’s license suspension, job loss, incarceration, and increased police contact that can lead to violence. But, as cities are confronted with significant COVID-19 budget challenges and the racially disproportionate impact of the pandemic, local governments and courts are spurring improvements in public safety and health by reforming fines and fees policies.

During this webinar series, FFJC outlined the harmful and unjust consequences of fines and fees policies on low-income families and communities of color. Following the 2008 Recession, state and local governments dramatically increased the number and amount of fines and fees imposed on people for everything from minor traffic and municipal code violations, to misdemeanors and felonies, in order to fill budget gaps. The over-reliance on fines and fees for municipal revenue, combined with over-policing in low-income communities, has amplified racial and economic disparities.

With this understanding, state and local governments can take proactive measures to ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs during this economic downturn, while resisting the temptation to increase fines and fees or ramp up aggressive collections practices.

Read on to learn what cities can do to advance reforms to their fines and fees policies.

In our first webinar, we discussed evidence-based policy recommendations and best practices, identifying a wide range of measures that cities can and should immediately implement in light of COVID-19 and the ongoing recovery process.

FFJC’s policy recommendations to alleviate financial burdens and injustices during this ongoing public health and economic crisis:

1: State and local jurisdictions should discharge all outstanding fines, fees and court debt. Where full discharge is not yet feasible, government and courts should implement immediately the following alternatives:

  • End all collection of fines, fees, and court debt, including but not limited to: payments due under payment plans, wage garnishment, property liens, off-sets of tax refunds, unemployment insurance and other public benefits, especially those related to housing.
  • Stop sending delinquent cases to private collection companies, and direct private collection companies and probation and parole officers to stop all collection efforts.
  • Stop imposing penalties for late or missed payments of fines, fees and court debt.
  • Suspend interest on unpaid fines, fees and court debt.

2: Immediately cease issuing and enforcing warrants for unpaid fines and fees or for failure to appear at a hearing addressing unpaid fines and fees.

3: State and local jurisdictions should stop driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees or for not appearing in court, and reinstate driver’s licenses suspended for non-safety reasons.

4: Law enforcement officers should release individuals with a warning who are driving on a suspended license. Alternatively, law enforcement should cite and release any person apprehended for driving on a suspended driver’s license, when the underlying suspension is based on unpaid fines and fees or not appearing in court. Under no circumstances should these individuals be arrested and jailed.

5: Local governments should stop issuing parking tickets and municipal code violations that do not impact public safety, and stop booting, towing and impounding vehicles for unpaid fines and fees.

6: Judges should waive or reduce any fines they impose, recognizing people’s precarious financial circumstances.

7: Jurisdictions should proactively and widely communicate any changes made in their fines and fees policies.

State and local approaches to fines and fees justice

In our second webinar, we were joined by state and local practitioners making changes in their fines and fees policies in their COVID-19 response and recovery plans. Speakers from Minnesota, Colorado, San Francisco, and Chicago outlined their foundational work, practical approaches, and policy changes in their approach to current economic and public health challenges.

Interested in how states are working to decrease their reliance on fines and fees? You can learn more about Minnesota and Colorado leaders’ approaches in this webinar recording.

San Francisco, CA

Building on San Francisco’s model reforms in recent years, the city has been working across its departments and with the local courts to create discounts — and in some cases fully eliminate various fines and fees. This work has been led by the Financial Justice Project, the nation’s first effort embedded in government to assess and reform fines and fees that have a disproportionate and adverse impact on low-income residents and communities of color.

You can learn more about some of the concrete actions that the city has taken to alleviate the harmful financial burden of fines and fees here.

A sampling of various actions that were taken across departments in San Francisco to provide COVID-19 fines and fees relief.

To help departments in the city think about the details behind what kinds of relief made sense for their communities, the city connected local community groups with the departments to help create protocols that were specific to the needs of residents. For example, the city’s transportation agency provided relief around parking enforcement and the public utilities commission put a moratorium on water service shut-off for residents that were unable to make their payments. By taking actions like these and providing residents with relief, San Francisco has been able to take steps that will ultimately help support its residents.

And while the city may be facing a deep budget deficit similar to many cities across the country, moments like these are typically when governments create systems to increase their use of fines and fees to potentially make up that gap. But it has been proven that increasing monetary sanctions and aggressively enforcing them is a counterproductive economic policy.

As Anne Stuhldreher, Director of Financial Justice in the Office of the Treasurer for the City and County of San Francisco, shares:

“We’ve learned in San Francisco that this just does not work. We are not going to be able to fine and fee our way out of this problem. The math just doesn’t add up, and what would gain from it revenue-wise would not outweigh the harm that it would inflict on our residents.”

Chicago, IL

To bring relief to its residents, the City of Chicago built off of its previous reforms to bring the right stakeholders to the table and implement emergency policy measures in real time. Some of the actions that Chicago has taken to lessen the harmful impacts of fines and fees enforcement in response to COVID-19 include:

Ticket Issuance

  • Enforcement will be prioritized for safety-related violations
  • Enforcement on compliance-related violations will be suspended during crisis

Parking, Red Light, Speed Camera Violation Collections

  • Delay assessment of penalty (ticket doubling) during crisis
  • Delay driver’s license suspension during crisis
  • No booting during crisis
  • Delay referral of tickets to collection firms during crisis
  • No defaults of payment plans for during crisis

Utility Bills

  • Extend due dates during crisis delaying assessment of penalties
  • Delay referrals to collection firms during crisis
  • No defaults of payment plans during crisis

Administrative Hearing Collections

  • Extend due dates during crisis (this will delay assessment of interest)
  • Delay referrals to collection firms during crisis
  • No defaults of payment plans during crisis

As the city plans its recovery, it has been evaluating its relief extensions — already extending some aspects of their fines and fees relief twice — to help residents and to provide ample lead time for when the city is going to move forward with reinstating certain fines. By giving residents fair warning that some aspects of the city’s existing fines and fees could return to normal, especially around ticketing, Chicago hopes to make the transition easier on its residents to give them ample lead to indicate if they are going to need additional support.

The city is also seeing that fines and fees reform has been proven to be budget positive by removing an additional layer of financial hardship from Black and brown residents. Chicago has been weighing racial equity and the impact of gender on its policies and programs and is making strides to determine how the city can improve the historically transactional relationship between residents and government.

You can learn more about Chicago’s approach to fines and fees reform here.

Additional Resources from FFJC

What’s up next?

Join WWC for our next COVID-19 response and recovery webinar, Housing Stability in Coronavirus Response & Recovery on July 1st and 29th with experts from ChangeLab Solutions. We’ll also be joined by speakers from the Urban Institute, Eviction Lab, and the Fordham University Urban Law Center.

You can learn more about this two-part webinar series and register here for July 1st and here for July 29th.

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

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Helping leading cities across the U.S. use data and evidence to improve results for their residents. Launched by @BloombergDotOrg in April 2015.

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