Commentary: Expand Criminal Fine Reform

Commentary: Expand Criminal Fine Reform

Almost one million Virginians have had their licenses suspended due to unpaid court fines and other charges.

Criminal justice reform is about making sure that the criminal justice system achieves its goals and works equally for everyone. One issue being examined is whether assessing traffic and court fines and costs, regardless of ability to pay, and then punishing those who do not pay, is achieving any desired goal. Court fines and fees can be assessed for criminal or traffic offenses, such as speeding or parking violations. When someone receives a ticket or is ordered to pay a fine for an infraction, they also have to pay court and processing fees. This system is in place to deter people from committing these crimes, and also as a way to reimburse the cost of expenses associated with processing the cases and pay back to society for the cost of any damage caused by their actions.

For some, paying fines is not a problem. For others who are struggling to get by, it may be difficult or impossible to pay. The penalties for failing to pay fines and fees end up having a much greater impact on those in poverty than the rest of the population. If someone cannot pay their fine or traffic ticket, penalties for non-payment increase the amounts they could not pay in the first place. Overdue fines often go to collection agencies and the mountain of debt grows even higher, since a 17 percent collection fee can be added on to the existing balance.

Compounding the issue is that if someone fails to pay their fines, the state can take their driver’s license away. The Legal Aid Justice Center found in January that almost one million (974,349) Virginians had their licenses suspended due to unpaid fines and other charges. Two-thirds of that group (638,003) had their licenses suspended solely because of unpaid fines. When the courts suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines, those individuals are not able to legally drive to work. Many people choose to drive illegally on their suspended licenses so they do not lose their income. If they are caught, then even more legal fees are added to their debt and some have to serve jail time. This vicious cycle makes it impossible for the courts to ever collect their fines and for those who owe to meet their obligations. It also means that people are pushed out of jobs and potentially into applying for government benefits.

Fortunately, in Fairfax County there are several programs to help individuals avoid these escalating penalties. Defendants can enter into a monthly payment plan with a down payment due at the time of their conviction. If a monthly payment is missed, then the defendant will go into default, which could result in additional fines and/or jail time. Another option is to defer the entire payment until a later date. Defendants may also be eligible for the Fines Option Program, which allows defendants to perform community service in lieu of paying fines and fees. Those who sign up for this option go to the Magistrate’s office on a Saturday morning, sign in, and take a bus to the George Mason University campus to perform tasks such as picking up litter, landscaping, or painting. Work hours are credited at the rate of $15 an hour toward payment of fines.

While we have some remarkable programs to assist those who cannot afford to pay off their fines, many people still fall through the cracks. We need to implement a new system to help determine a person’s ability to pay before they go to trial. The judge and clerk’s office need the ability to set fines that can actually be paid. We need further opportunities for the alternative of assigning community service with more flexible schedules for those who cannot make the Saturday morning sessions.

Fine reform cannot truly take place without significant changes by the General Assembly. However, the County can help in the process by assisting the courts in bolstering their programs and making them more effective. We defeat the purpose of fines if we cause people to lose their jobs and the ability to support their families. Alternatives are important to a more just system.