When the ‘fine print’ feeds poverty, he battles bureaucracy


Daryl Atkinson has a law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law. He received a 2014 Champions of Change Award from the White House and went on to become the inaugural “Second Chance” fellow in Barack Obama’s administration from June 2015 through the end of the administration. And in 2016, he co-founded one of the highest-impact nonprofits doing legal reform in the South: Forward Justice.

He also has a criminal record. In 1996, he was convicted of a nonviolent drug offense and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served the mandatory minimum of four years and got out ready to start over. But first he had to figure out how to get to the grocery store without a driver’s license (it had been automatically revoked) and how to pay off the $50,000 in fees and fines that went home with him from prison. 

Mr. Atkinson remembers one particularly harrowing day. He had been piecing his life back together, making his dream of going to law school a reality, when he got a call from his mother. “Someone came knocking on my door and said they have a warrant for your arrest,” she said, the fear palpable in her voice. 

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On paper, court fees and ticket fines help balance local budgets. But a deep dive suggests the harm they cause far outweighs any revenue raised.

His stomach dropped. When he followed up, he found out that the district attorney’s office had put out the warrant for his failure to pay his criminal justice debt. He worked out a plan with the office – $100 a month while he was still in law school, with more to come once he got his first job – but anytime he fell behind, it would threaten re-incarceration. If he and his wife got a little extra infusion of cash, they put it toward his debt – forgoing a 529 college savings account for their daughter or the other financial things they had so hoped to do to set her up for success. He explains, “All of the bridges towards wealth were stripped away.”  

But Mr. Atkinson and his family persevered. It took 24 years to pay off the debt. “I was finally free from feeling under the lash of the state, always called to account around something that I did so long ago, irrespective of what levels of achievement I had attained,” he says. He goes on, “Who is the same as they were two decades ago? When does it ever end? Everyone should be able to relate to that.”

Mr. Atkinson is not alone. Over the past decade, a growing movement in the United States has been fighting back against the fines and fees – largely invisible to the general public – that haunt already economically marginalized people. The most prominent examples are criminal justice fees and traffic violation fines. 

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