Unjust Fees and Fines

Too many people are menaced by a criminal legal system that tends to treat you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.

Sarah Reingewirtz/Los Angeles Daily News

It is illegal to imprison a person because they are too poor to pay a fine. Despite Supreme Court rulings that ban debtor’s prisons, hundreds of people are jailed each year in Alabama because they are unable to pay court fees and fines.

Across the country, towns and counties are funding courts, police, and other local services by imposing increasingly steep fines and court fees for traffic tickets and other minor offenses. For low-income people, fees and fines for traffic and parking violations often add up quickly to crushing debt burdens that they cannot pay.

The problem is especially acute in Alabama, where towns and cities grappling with structural poverty rely more heavily on court fees and fines because they are barred from imposing new local taxes to pay for basic municipal services.

While individuals who have the financial means to pay fees and fines but refuse to do so may be incarcerated for willful nonpayment, the law is absolutely clear that the government cannot imprison a person solely because of their inability to pay a fine or fee.1 Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983); see also EJI, “Justice Department Warns State and Local Courts Against Fine and Fee Practices That Punish the Poor“(March 18, 2016).

Local authorities throughout Alabama nonetheless continue to jail people who are too poor to pay fines and fees. EJI has challenged this practice, but people continue to be imprisoned—some for as many as 16 months—because they were too poor to pay court fees and fines.

In our re-entry work, we have seen the threat created by unpaid court fees and fines. Clients can have their probation or parole revoked and face years of incarceration for missing a single monthly payment on their court debt.

Our legal system’s punitive approach to court debts has only deepened the problems of poverty and recovery for poor people and the need for reform and engagement is very clear.

To address this longstanding problem, EJI is modeling a project that provides assistance to relieve unjust court fees and fines. We believe this can directly impact recidivism, keep thousands of people from going to jail, and help low-income people manage limited resources more effectively by removing the threat of arrest and imprisonment that menaces people who are unable to pay court fees and fines.

Explore more in Anti-Poverty