States and local governments should stop eliminate court-imposed fees, create sliding scales that assess fines’ based on an individual’s ability to repay the debt, and no longer suspend the driver’s licenses of individuals with unpaid debts because the cost of collecting on those debts is too high relative to the revenue it brings in, according to a first-of-its-kind report that was published yesterday.
States and local governments are spending about 121 times as much to collect on unpaid court-imposed fines as the Internal Revenue Service spends to collect on unpaid tax debts, according to the report, which was issued by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
The report looked at 10 different counties across the United States and determined that it cost 41 cents to collect every dollar of a court-imposed fine.
In one county in Texas, for example, the misdemeanor and traffic courts spent $4.8 million on costs related to fee and fine compliance and spend $4.6 million on jailing those who did not pay their debts.
Texas, Florida, and New Mexico have amassed an unpaid debt portfolio of $1.9 billion, according to the report, and the amount is growing by the day. “Much of this debt is unlikely to ever be collected, as those with low incomes lack resources to draw on for payment,” the report concluded. “This high level of uncollected debt demonstrates why fees and fines are such an unreliable way to raise revenue. It also hurts those who can’t pay, putting them at risk of incarceration, loss of their ability to legally drive, voter disenfranchisement, and increased difficulty in getting a job. And courts keep track of debts in perpetuity, making it all but impossible for defendants to get out from under them.”