Fines, Fees, and Justice
By Bedr Skargee
Stetson College of Law Student Intern
The fundamental question when it comes to criminal fines and fees is whether the punishments fit the crimes. If the scales of justice are to be balanced, then they must. However, this is often not the case.
The crimes associated with fines and fees are often considered minor enough to be infractions – crimes that many of us would hardly consider crimes, or the people who commit them to be criminals. Receiving a parking ticket and being unable to pay it, leaving one’s trashcan out on the street, or jaywalking are a few examples of the types of crimes that the criminal fines and fees system entail.
The punishments for these crimes come in the form of seemingly minor fees and fines to match. The reality is that these fees often snowball with cumulative effects if they are unable to be paid, or otherwise missed. These fees can arise from involuntarily becoming involved in the court system, and they can be compounded by private probation companies or for participation in diversion programs.
As the fees accumulate, interest begins to accrue as well. Citizens or non-citizens of lower-income backgrounds are often unable to afford to pay the fees and become ensnared by the interest and further fines. When payments are made, they are often made without touching the principal amount owed—merely knocking off interest or an additional fine for late or non-payment. At that point, the mechanism by which criminal fines and fees operate is systematically condemning citizens and aspiring citizens as criminals in a manner that is functionally self-fulfilling.
Attention must be directed to the disproportionate effect of criminal fines and fees. They place an unbalanced and systematically unintentional burden upon populations who ought to be systematically supported in their endeavors to work for a better life. These are persons who aspire to have a life beyond criminality, ordinary persons who have committed relatively harmless crimes, or even non-citizens who seek a better life through effort and determination. Instead of being supported, they are weighed down to the point of criminality by fines and fees that other morally-comparable persons of higher income can afford to cast aside without second-thought. Driver’s licenses—often essential for work and other facets of life—are suspended, and the threat of jail-time for non-payment looms overhead.
How much revenue do the criminal fines and fees actually provide? According to a report from Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program, the purported financial benefits of fines and fees may be a façade. The cost of arrest, the cost of issuing a warrant, and the cost of jail time must be factored against the fines and fees actually collected – and more difficult to calculate is the economic cost to an area and the government when a person consequently loses their job.
All in all, the criminal fines and fees system and its underlying mechanics have the practical effect of oppressing any relatively-low income population. These are the populations that should be supported, or, in the least, proceed unhindered in their pursuit of full and meaningful lives.