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.
Many states, counties, and cities charge people who are incarcerated for phone calls home – a critical connection, proven to reduce recidivism – or for basic toiletries like a toothbrush and toothpaste (marked way up). And those on parole are frequently charged for things like ankle monitor rental. These fees often wind up being paid not by the incarcerated person or parolee but by family members – typically women of color, according to a report by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. In 63% of cases, family members were mainly responsible for paying court-related costs connected with convictions. Of those, 83% were women. Many respondents made less than $15,000 annually, while the average debt incurred for court-related fines and fees was $13,607.
Or consider more mundane violations: traffic tickets. Leisa Moseley-Sayles, a Las Vegas City Council campaign manager at the time, was dropping off her two older children at middle school in 2014 when a school police officer pulled her over for not parking close enough to the curb (a common practice during harried school drop-offs, as most parents will attest). When he looked her up in the system, he found a warrant for her arrest due to an unpaid fine related to an expired license plate citation. Even though her younger two children were in the car, the officer said he’d have to take her into the station. “What about my kids?” she asked.
“We’ll take them to Child Haven, a shelter for kids who have been removed from their homes,” he said. “Unless you have a friend you can call.”
Ms. Moseley-Sayles called a girlfriend, who rushed over to grab her children before she was taken away. She was released that afternoon, but the emotional damage to her children had already been done. “We don’t talk enough about the emotional impact of these fines and fees,” Ms. Moseley-Sayles says.
What might seem like a manageable fine to a more economically secure person – let’s say $238 for having a busted headlight in the state of California or $100 for a parking ticket on the streets of Chicago – can have profound repercussions for someone living on the edge.
According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, 86% of Americans drive to work. If someone has their license suspended because of an unpaid traffic violation, they might lose their ability to get to their job, and eventually lose their job altogether. This can lead not just to economic precarity but also to food insecurity, health complications, and more. In some states, if you owe fines or fees, you can’t vote.
Further, debt-related restrictions on driving privileges force a no-win choice on many people: Stop driving and lose everything, or keep driving and risk more fines, criminal charges, arrest, and jail time. This can make a $100 traffic ticket a slippery slope into justice system involvement. As Lisa Foster, who co-founded the Fines and Fees Justice Center, explains, “For poor families, fines and fees are like flypaper – you get stuck in the system and can’t get out.”
That’s how Ms. Moseley-Sayles felt. Her arrest that day was the result of a $299 citation she had received in 2010. At that time, in a career transition and in the thick of a divorce, she couldn’t afford to pay the initial ticket, nor the payment plan she negotiated. “It’s about an ability to pay, not a willingness to pay,” she says.
The impact of fines and fees is felt all over the nation. According to a recent report by the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law and the Fines and Fees Justice Center, 1 in 3 American families are directly impacted by legal fines and fees, and at least 17 million families with children sacrifice on essentials due to court debt.
It’s hard to come by national data for a variety of reasons, but many states have good data. The research shows that in Nevada, where Ms. Moseley-Sayles lives, for example, the most common tickets for which warrants are issued are related to poverty more than to safety: lack of registration, lack of insurance, and equipment violations. It also shows that the poorest communities have the most warrants – by orders of magnitude.
Research also shows that people of color, and Black people in particular, are about 20% more likely than white people to be pulled over. So given that people of color experience poverty at higher rates in the U.S. than white people, those most likely to be ticketed are least likely to be able to pay.
But a growing movement, in part led by those who have been directly impacted, such as Mr. Atkinson and Ms. Moseley-Sayles, is fighting for what might be thought of as “fine print justice” – the repeal of government policies that, sometimes in hidden ways, ask the least financially secure Americans to subsidize government budgets.
First, some history. What was the thinking behind instituting these fines and fees in the first place?
Fines date back to the Middle Ages, when feudal lords would let people pay to get out of their stockades – an alternative to being in custody. Over time, governments realized that there were many offenses that didn’t merit custody. You shouldn’t, for example, go to jail for running a stop sign. So the fine became the alternative punishment. The size of those fines, related to a range of crimes, is a subject of great controversy.
Fees are yet another source of controversy, though they are designed in ways that make scrutiny of them nearly impossible for the average person. Unlike fines, which are supposed to be a form of punishment, fees became a way to raise government revenue. Many pinpoint the beginning of that trend to 1982, when President Ronald Reagan’s administration and Congress decided to abolish a federal agency called the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration overnight. That agency, a vestige of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on crime program, provided as much as $2.7 billion per year to state and local criminal justice systems.
States and counties, floundering to fill the funding gap, started adding fees – sometimes hidden – to all kinds of tickets. By 1984, the federal government created a replacement agency, the Office for Justice Programs, but it took 14 years for the department to get up to the previous level of funding. By then, the fee approach had taken hold across the country.
On top of these dynamics, add President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, which led to longer sentences and higher fines, and the explosive growth of mass incarceration. Plus, the Great Recession led to austere governments looking to fines and fees to subsidize even the most basic government services. Ms. Foster, of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, explains, “What really happened between 1982 and 2010 is that legislatures started using the justice system as an ATM machine.”
And legislators have largely chosen not to assess whether that ATM is actually working. When Ms. Foster and her colleagues went to all 50 states asking for their data on the fees they impose at the time of conviction, the most straightforward fees to track, only 11 of them could account for what was assessed and collected. Eleven other states could give only partial data because they have municipal courts, which are decentralized and don’t use a shared system for tracking fines, fees, and revenue. New York and Texas, for example, have roughly 1,000 such local courts each. Even so, the Fines and Fees Justice Center team managed to account for $27.6 billion in unpaid fees, but it named the report “Tip of the Iceberg,” as it was clear that this amount was nothing close to the accurate number.
While comprehensive data is scarce, the available data is damning. Using fines and fees to raise government revenue has proved to be profoundly ineffective. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the counties studied in Texas and New Mexico spend more than 41 cents of every dollar of revenue received from fees and fines for in-court hearings and jail costs to collect that revenue. “That’s 121 times what the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect taxes,” the Brennan Center report notes.
The illogic of these fines and fees was put into stark relief at an unlikely moment: the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9, 2014. Many people associate Mr. Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson with the start of mass protests over police violence against Black people, but in the long tail of the unrest, something else significant, albeit quieter, occurred. The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that read, in part:
“The department found that Ferguson Municipal Court has a pattern or practice of:
“•Focusing on revenue over public safety, leading to court practices that violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection requirements.
“•Court practices exacerbating the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices and imposing particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”
Noting how far beyond Ferguson this issue extends, a follow-on report by several justice agencies was titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem.” Fines and fees like these are part of a larger category of what academics and advocates call “wealth-stripping” practices – government policies and private sector strategies that extract money from families already struggling financially.
Swarthmore College historian John Caskey’s 1996 book, “Fringe Banking: Check-Cashing Outlets, Pawnshops, and the Poor,” was one of the first to frame wealth stripping, and in the years since there has been ample scholarship on the topic. This way of looking at economic justice asks not simply to raise economically marginalized folks up to the middle class through income- and wealth-building strategies, but also to recognize that current policies keep pulling them back down, no matter how many financial literacy classes or college scholarships exist.
In short, policies that take money away from poor people often prevent them from transcending generational poverty.
Advocate Anne Stuhldreher remembers reading the landmark Department of Justice report about Ferguson and thinking, “I really hope this isn’t happening in California.”
As a grantmaker at The California Endowment, she knew a lot of anti-poverty organizers throughout the state and started asking them about the issue. She remembers a particularly catalytic moment when she was sitting at a big, regional meeting and the director of the East Bay Community Law Center slid a piece of paper across the table to her with a bunch of county names and numbers on it. The list showed the fees that parents were charged when their children got out of juvenile jail. She was shocked: “What? The biggest determinant of how a kid is going to do when they get out of juvenile hall is if they have a relationship with a caring, loving adult. By charging these fees, we’re directly threatening that bond right out of the gate.”
She brought her newly collected data and no small amount of outrage to various government officials in San Francisco. “I kept telling them, this is a lose-lose. You all should start an economic justice agenda,” Ms. Stuhldreher remembers.
José Cisneros, who was San Francisco’s treasurer at the time and, as such, in charge of revenue for the city and county, agreed with her, but on one condition – that she come and run it. That wasn’t Ms. Stuhldreher’s plan, but she couldn’t say no.
And that’s how, in late 2016, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to launch an office called The Financial Justice Project, housed in the Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector, to assess and reform how fees and fines were impacting low-income people and people of color, in particular. Ms. Stuhldreher recalls that her first goal in her new role was to chase down missing data such as the collection rate on things like probation fees, which turned out to be 9%. And the government was spending a lot of money tracking down that 9%. She started referring to them as “high pain and low gain” fees.
Ms. Stuhldreher explains, “I thought, surely we can hold people accountable without putting them in financial peril. And surely we can balance our budgets without putting it on the backs of the most marginalized people in our city. We had to try.”
The city did more than try. Advocates and officials, together, won huge reforms. San Francisco became a critical testing ground for these insider repeal efforts on a wide range of topics. The city has eliminated administrative fees charged to people exiting jail and the criminal legal system, eliminated overdue library fines and cleared $1.5 million in outstanding debt from these fines, and eliminated San Francisco Public Utilities Commission fees to restore service for people who have had their water shut off – among so much else.
The playbook is basically this: Talk to those most directly impacted by fines and fees, who can pinpoint which ones are giving them the most trouble. Follow the money (namely: What is the collection rate? And what does it cost the government to get that money?). Paint a picture of why fines and fees are a lose-lose so that both government insiders and sympathetic outsiders, like public interest lawyers, community organizers, nonprofit leaders working on immigration or incarceration, etc., understand. Finally, in coalition, push hard for reform. And once you get it at the local level, aim for state reform.
Ms. Stuhldreher began to get inquiries from government advocates around the country who wanted to replicate what she and her team were doing in San Francisco. That’s how the Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice Bootcamp was born (virtually) in May 2020. In sessions run by the national Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice Network, people interested in doing what Ms. Stuhldreher and others have done in their own hometowns, counties, and states can learn best practices and how to avoid common pitfalls. The key questions, for example, to ask about any fine or fee that is ripe for reform are these: Is it effective? Is it fair? Is it equitable? Is it efficient? Is it sustainable?
Many reforms have been seeded through this effort: Dallas and St. Paul, Minnesota, ended debt-based driver’s license suspensions, and Philadelphia passed a budget that ends major commissary markups in prison and provides 165 minutes of free phone-call time weekly for incarcerated people, among much more.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center, for which Ms. Moseley-Sayles is now the Nevada state director, has also had some big wins recently. The organization works on national campaigns as well as state-specific ones in New York, Florida, New Mexico, and Nevada. Nevada issued warrants for both failure to appear (FTA) and failure to pay (FTP) when Ms. Moseley-Sayles got her first ticket; traffic tickets were also considered criminal misdemeanors. Thanks to her work with partners such as a law clinic at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; the state American Civil Liberties Union affiliate; local immigrants’ rights groups; and the Clark County Black Caucus, they succeeded in decriminalizing traffic violations in Nevada in 2021. The new law went into effect in January 2023. As a result, people given traffic tickets are no longer subject to warrants for their arrest – or to the fees that come with FTA and FTP warrants.
On June 16, 2023, New Mexico officially ended the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for FTA and FTP warrants, a policy change that resulted in hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans regaining the freedom to drive. And in Nevada, a coalition successfully passed significant fine and fee reforms in 2023 with bipartisan support from the Democratic-controlled Legislature and newly elected Republican governor. SB416, which focuses on criminal justice fees, eliminated “room and board” fees – for which 25% of incarcerated people’s already low wages were being garnished to cover those fees. Nevada also outlawed commissary markups, which sometimes amounted to basics like menstrual pads, toothbrushes, and toothpaste costing close to 70% more.
Additionally, in 2019, over 100 organizations – from the Southern Poverty Law Center to JPMorgan Chase – launched Free To Drive: a coalition united by the belief that restrictions on driving privileges should be reserved for dangerous driving, not to coerce debt payment or to punish people who miss a court appearance.
So what’s up next for this growing movement?
Ms. Foster says she is confident that every state will stop suspending driver’s licenses due to debt before long. Twenty-four states have enacted significant reform since 2017, so the movement is well on its way. As for her broader aspiration, she says with a chuckle, “Do I think we will eliminate every last fee in my lifetime? Hope springs eternal.”
Ms. Stuhldreher is a little less sanguine. When asked about the future of the movement, she reflects, “I still feel like it’s early days, to be honest. There is momentum, but there is a lot more work to do.”
Mr. Atkinson concurs: “The road to abolition is long. We are trying to find as many strategic opportunities as possible to engage in harm reduction along the way.”
Many days in this work are hard and underwhelming. But Mr. Atkinson remembers one day that felt different.
His nonprofit, Forward Justice, had been working with the North Carolina district attorney’s office to think about how to get folks some relief. One in 12 adults in the state currently have unpaid criminal court debt, which often leads to a loss of their license and the vicious cycle that follows. Research shows that if people don’t pay in the first 24 months (likely because they can’t drive to work), they almost never do.
Durham County, North Carolina, District Attorney Satana Deberry decided that rather than using her prosecutorial resources to chase money that would likely never be found, she’d unleash people’s earning potential. On Jan. 14, 2019, she dismissed 559 fines in one fell swoop. She called it her “year of jubilee,” a biblical reference to a year of restoration. In the speech accompanying her decision, she said, “The main authority for my motions today is statutory. Yet, it is also ethical and fairer than the current arrangement, in [that] this debt largely burdens poor people. … With their debts forgiven, these individuals can now get a driver’s license. They can get insurance. They can go to work and to school. They can participate fully in the economic and social vitality of our community.”
“That was a good day!” Mr. Atkinson recalls.