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Kaine Cosponsors Legislation to Eliminate Excessive Court Fines and Fees That Target Low Income Communities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Tim Kaine joined U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) in introducing the State Justice Improvement Act, legislation that will make lasting changes to America’s criminal justice system. Across the country, courts often impose fines and fees without considering an individual’s ability to pay—disproportionately impacting low income communities and communities of color. This legislation provides state and local courts with new and expanded federal funding opportunities to reform these punitive policies. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced companion legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This legislation is a vital step toward dismantling the harmful architecture of inequality,” said Senator Kaine. “Eliminating excessive court fines and fees will help create a more fair justice system for all and give state and local courts the resources to implement effective alternatives to hold people accountable.”

“All Americans deserve equal treatment under the law, no matter how much money is in their bank accounts,” said Senator Schatz. “Our bill will help to end the cycle of poverty and incarceration, creating a justice system that treats people fairly and keeps our communities safe.”

“All Americans, regardless of their socioeconomic status, deserve equal access to our nation’s criminal justice system,” said Chairman Nadler. “Sadly, numerous courts across the nation impose excessive fees and fines which have failed to improve public safety, and instead have placed an undue burden on low-income communities and communities of color. Our legislation will help address these injustices so that we take a step toward bringing an end to the poverty to prison pipeline, and restore public trust in our criminal justice system.”

Individuals who are unable to pay face serious consequences, including more fees, license suspensions, extended probation, and incarceration. As a result, they can get trapped in the criminal justice system and may lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children. In the 50 cities with the highest proportion of revenues from court fines, the median African American population in each city was over five times the median across the country.

In addition, the practice can be both costly and inefficient for cities and counties. For example, some counties in Texas and New Mexico spend an average of 41 cents to collect every dollar of revenue raised from fines and fees. Moreover, there is no clear evidence that imposing large fines and fees deters crime—in fact, such fines may encourage crime. A survey of counties in Alabama indicated that nearly 40 percent of individuals committed a crime in order to pay off their court debt.

The State Justice Improvement Act is a meaningful step towards creating a justice system that treats individuals fairly and ensures public safety. The legislation will help jurisdictions enforce constitutional and equitable policies by broadening the activities available for federal funding. The grants will be used to provide technical assistance and training to state and local courts as they develop effective alternatives to fines and fees, should a person be deemed unable to pay. The bill also requires the State Justice Institute to conduct a study on the effectiveness of these grants and to provide a report to Congress with appropriate policy recommendations.

In the Senate, this legislation is also cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). 

The bill has been endorsed by the American Bar Association, Brennan Center for Justice, Business Roundtable, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Fines and Fees Justice Center, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Operation Restoration – Safety and Freedom Fund, R Street Institute, and The Law Enforcement Action Partnership.

The full text of the bill is available here.