Being poor shouldn’t be a crime, but in America, having too little income to pay court fines often leaves people behind bars when they can’t afford the penalties and fees that can frequently double or triple the original cost of the fine. California has attempted to rectify this situation by outlawing some of the most common nationwide criminal justice fees, such as those related to bookings, the use of a public defender, the cost of incarceration itself, and the cost of house arrest, probation, parole, or work furlough.
How are Court Fines Calculated?
California has a standard base schedule of penalties and fines for all criminal offenses. Judges may choose to waive these fees or add on additional civil penalties. There are also many penalty assessments and fees that must be added to each fine. As an example, the base fine for a drunk driving charge is $390, but then penalty assessments and fees are added for things such as (the percentage of the original fine is included for each penalty):
- State Penalty Assessment (100%)
- County Penalty Assessment (70%)
- State Surcharge (20%)
- Court construction (50%)
- Proposition 69 DNA (10%)
- DNA Identification Fund (40%)
- Emergency Medical Services (20%)
- Emergency Medical Air Transportation (a Flat $4)
These penalty assessments add 290% to the original value of the fine, bringing the total up to $1135. But the additional charges don’t stop there. There’s also a court operations assessment of $40, a conviction assessment fee of $30, a $1 night-court fee, and a $150 minimum restitution fine (the judge can charge more). All of this brings the total DUI fee up to $1,820. There are also additional penalty assessments that may be added to a DUI, including:
- DUI lab test (up to $50)
- Alcohol education (up to $50)
- County alcohol and drug program (up to $100)
These additional assessments and fines can quickly bring the total cost of a DUI up to $2,020 for a first-time DUI, with subsequent offenses having even higher penalties. Typically, courts in San Diego levy a total fine of $1950 for first-time DUIs.
It’s worth adding that offenders may also need to pay additional fees related to vehicle impoundment, DMV fees, GPS ankle devices for house arrest, ignition interlock devices, and more. While many people assume public defenders are free, courts may also charge offenders for needing a court-appointed attorney according to how much they believe the accused can afford.
It’s easy to see how someone already in poverty will have difficulty paying off the court fees, let alone getting their vehicle and license back. Many who require a car to get to work end up violating the terms of their probation by driving without a valid license, valid SR-22 insurance, a vehicle without proper registration, or by using a family member’s name to register their vehicle to avoid having to install an ignition interlock device.
Where do Court Fines Go?
These fines go to a variety of programs within the city and state. California largely subsidizes its justice system through court fines, which many people argue places the burden of keeping the courts in operation mainly on the backs of citizens who are already living in poverty.
What’s worse though, is that many fines subsidize programs entirely unrelated to the criminal justice system. Penalties levied in courts may support programs including, but not limited to, the:
- California Beverage Container Recycling Fund
- State Optometry Fund
- Cigarette Tax Fund
- Oil Pollution Response and Restoration Subaccount
- Emergency Medical Air Transportation Act Fund
- Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund
- State Fire Marshall Fireworks Enforcement and Disposal Fund
- Fish and Game Propagation Fund
- Security Services Fund
- Veterinary Medical Board Contingent Fund
While many of these are legitimate programs that need funding, many arguing the dramatic court fee reform point out that it isn’t fair to ask someone who got a traffic ticket for running a red light to help pay for them.
If You Can’t Afford to Pay the Fines
When someone can’t afford to pay their court-ordered fines, it is easy to see how these courtroom penalties end up criminalizing poverty. The state institutes many penalties for those who fail to pay their legal fees.
Fortunately, since AB 1125 was passed in 2023, the DMV can no longer suspend an individual’s drivers license if someone is unable to pay their traffic fines. However, other penalties may still apply, including a $300 civil assessment, for failing to pay fines on time. The government sometimes allows those who cannot afford to pay the fees all at once to arrange a payment plan, but these often include additional interest or fines, meaning those most in need of a break end up paying more than other offenders.
Can You Go to Jail for Not Paying Court Fines?
Yes, but what will happen if you fail to pay will typically vary based on the type of case involved and the amount of fines. Some cases will go into collections, which can destroy your credit score. Some people will have their income tax refunds seized to pay off what they owe. In some cases, judges even issue warrants for those who fail to pay their fines.
If you fail to pay a traffic ticket or to appear in court to fight the charges, you can be charged with failure to appear, which is punishable by up to six months in jail —and another $1,000 in fines. Notably though, a court must evaluate someone’s ability to pay before sentencing them to jail.
For those on probation, failure to pay your fines, fees, and restitution within the allotted time frame is considered a probation violation, which can result in additional penalties, including jail time. The court requires all fines and fees to be paid before terminating probation early or expunging a conviction.
When is a Fine Considered Excessive?
The Eighth Amendment guarantees that “excessive fines” cannot be imposed against US citizens. Unfortunately, this is a challenging standard to establish, as what seems excessive to a person living on the streets could be a pittance to a middle-class individual, and what someone in the middle class considers excessive may be pocket change to a billionaire. While there is no set limit to what makes a fine excessive, courts have established that the amount should be proportional to the harm done by the accused party and what other penalties are being implemented against them.
Additionally, in 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that courts should only sentence someone to jail if it can be shown that the individual could have paid their fine but chose not to. Similarly, the California Supreme Court requires lower courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay a fine before they can be imprisoned for failing to pay it.
In the original criminal trial, a criminal attorney can often convince judges to reduce the fines and fees based on their client’s income.
Should Court Fees be Eliminated Entirely?
Many criminal justice advocates believe this system will always be unfair until the courts stop charging fees altogether. Studies show that these financial penalties:
- are unfairly burdensome to those with a low income
- don’t deter crime
- make it harder for offenders to re-enter society
- are so costly to enforce that most cities see a negligible net revenue for their efforts
While some proposals have been made to eliminate these fines, it will be challenging to implement such a dramatic change all at once, as removing these penalties will immediately result in the courts losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year while the state would be unlikely to quickly eliminate the bureaucracy currently in place to collect these fines. Meanwhile, the government could not pay the judges, bailiffs, public defenders, clerks, and everyone else who works directly for the state court.
Because most cities and states are unlikely to eliminate court fees, a common alternative is to scale the fines based on an individual’s income. While the state has yet to institute a default income-based system of penalties, California has recently experimented with allowing drivers to more easily request that their traffic tickets be reduced based on their ability to pay the citation. The California Ability to Pay program also allows individuals to pay off their fines using a payment plan or by performing community service rather than requiring the debt to be paid immediately.
Though there is no simple online form to have misdemeanor or felony fines in the criminal justice system, an attorney can often request the judge lower the financial penalties based on their client’s inability to pay. Alternatively, many plea bargains allow defendants to minimize the fines they must pay the court.