February 26, 2021
Across the U.S., court fines and fees — for everything from minor traffic and municipal code violations, to misdemeanors and felonies—have devastated millions of lives. People who can’t afford to pay fines and fees are punished with additional fees, license suspensions, loss of voting rights and, far too frequently, arrest and jail. Stuck in a cycle of punishment and poverty, people often lose their jobs, their homes, and even their children. There is now a two-tier system of justice where people with low income — and particularly communities of color — are disproportionately punished.
Lisa Foster and Joanna Weiss, co-founders and co-directors of the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC), have dedicated their careers to ensuring that the justice system treats people fairly. Lisa is the former Director of the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), where she led the Department’s efforts to address fines and fees. Joanna was the Director of Criminal Justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, where she created and managed the nation’s first fines and fees portfolio, garnering millions of dollars for research, litigation and technical assistance.
When Lisa left the DOJ in 2017, she realized the urgent need for a national organization solely focused on catalyzing a movement for fines and fees reform. Joanna was looking to leverage her experience developing fines and fees projects to accelerate reform on a national scale. Together they developed the idea to create a national center for advocacy, information, and collaboration dedicated to eliminating fees in the justice system and ensuring that fines are equitably imposed and enforced.
When Lisa and Joanna co-founded the Fines and Fees Justice Center in 2018, they incubated the project at the New Venture Fund (NVF) so they could receive operational support and quickly set up a structure to secure funding and launch at a national level.
Working collaboratively with affected communities and justice system stakeholders, FFJC is already making astounding progress and achieving positive impact. In just three years, FFJC has developed a replicable advocacy model for comprehensive, bipartisan state-based reform, while providing critical support to dozens of successful reform efforts across the U.S.
Ending Debt-Based License Suspension
In 2019, FFJC launched its Free to Drive campaign aimed at ending the nationwide problem of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. Currently, millions of people in the U.S. don’t have the freedom to legally drive simply because they can’t afford to pay court debt for a ticket, fine, or fee.
Losing one’s driver’s license is no small thing. Many people lose their jobs. Many more are unable to meet their basic needs such as attending doctor’s appointments, taking care of their families, or getting to court. And, because these basic needs are so important, 83% of Americans with suspended licenses report that they continue to drive multiple times a week. When they do, they risk a criminal conviction, more fines and fees, and incarceration. These debt-based license suspensions trigger a cycle of punishment for poverty that many people spend decades trying to escape.
The progress of FFJC’s campaign has been stunning: In just three years, 13 states have passed legislative reforms in states both red and blue. The initiative has widespread bipartisan support, with stakeholders from across the political spectrum finding common ground.
Responding to COVID-19 Budget Crises
Following the Great Recession that began in late 2007, state and local governments attempted to solve their budget woes by turning to police, prosecutors, and judges to generate revenue through fines and fees — and used draconian tactics to collect them. This hidden, regressive system of taxation is now entrenched in virtually every state, and in municipalities across the country.
FFJC is fighting to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. It’s promising that in response to COVID-19, hundreds of U.S. jurisdictions have enacted hundreds of fines and fees policy changes — from moratoria on fine and fee collections and enforcement, to permanently discharging outstanding court debt and eliminating a wide range of fees.
In 2020, FFJC launched an advocacy resource site with policy recommendations, budget alternatives to fines and fees, and a regularly updated reform tracker cataloging the hundreds of changes to fines and fees policies enacted since COVID-19 swept the U.S.
Now more than ever, an organization like FFJC is needed to capitalize on this momentum for fines and fees reform. FFJC is ensuring that lawmakers take proactive measures to ensure that fines and fees are not a barrier to people’s basic needs throughout this economic crisis.
Last year, California passed some of the most far-reaching reforms to date, ending the collection of 23 fees charged to people in the criminal justice system — such as fees for public defenders, local booking fees, and probation and parole fees — and forgiving $16 billion in court debt. Governor Newsom’s proposed 2021-22 budget also includes a funding boost for California courts — an important development that decreases the state’s reliance on harmful fine and fee revenue.
Thanks to NVF’s support, FFJC is primed to rapidly advance bipartisan state and local reforms that ensure the justice system is funded equitably and treats people fairly.