Being poor shouldn’t be a crime, but it can be under California’s criminal justice system where someone charged a small criminal fine can easily end up owing three or even four times that amount once all the fines and penalties have been added. While many activists have been demanding change for years, the renewed public interest in improving the justice system after the death of George Floyd has brought additional attention to the need for court fine reform.
How are Court Fines Calculated?
California has a standard base schedule of fines for all criminal offenses. Judges may choose to waive these fees or add on additional civil penalties. There are also a number of penalty assessments and fees that must be added to each fine. As an example, the base fine for drunk driving charge is $390, then there are penalty assessments that go to different funds including (with the percentage of the original fine for each penalty):
- State (100%)
- County (70%)
- 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 an additional 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 state surcharge of 20%, 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 $1,824. 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)
This can quickly bring the totals up to $2,024 for a first-time DUI, with subsequent offenses having even higher fines. 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. It’s easy to see how someone already in poverty will have a difficult time ever paying off the court fees, let alone getting their vehicle and license back. If she needs a car to get to work, it’s entirely she will end up violating the terms of her probation by driving without a valid license, valid SR-22 insurance, a vehicle without proper registration or using a family member’s name to register her vehicle so she can avoid having install an ignition interlock device.
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 person being charged can actually afford.
Where do Court Fines Go?
These fines go to a variety of programs within the city and state. In fact, California largely subsidizes its justice system through the use of fines, which many people argue places the burden of keeping the courts in operation largely on the backs of citizens who are already living in poverty.
What’s worse though is that many fines end up subsidizing programs completely unrelated to the criminal justice system. Penalties levied in courts may subsidize 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 do need funding, many arguing for the dramatic reform of the court fees point out that it isn’t exactly fair to ask someone who got a traffic ticket for running a red light to help pay for them.
What Happens When Someone Doesn’t Pay Court Fines?
This is where it is really easy to see how something attempting to serve as criminal penalties for actual offenses end up criminalizing poverty instead. The state institutes a number of different penalties for those who fail to pay their legal fees. For traffic offenses, drivers may lose not only their license, but even their cars. For the working poor, this often means choosing between breaking additional laws and driving without a valid license or registration or losing their sole source of income.
Other penalties may apply as well, 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.
What will happen if you completely fail to pay will vary based on the type of case involved and the amount of fines. Some cases will go into collections or result in seized income tax refunds, which can destroy your credit score.
The court additionally will require all fines and fees to be paid before either terminating probation early or expunging a conviction.
Some jurisdictions and individual judges may waive fees to reduce the number of fees and fines owed, but many argue that the current system doesn’t only criminalize poverty, but violates a poor defendant’s rights by subjecting them to cruel and unusual punishment.
How Can This Be Fixed?
While some reform efforts have been implemented, none have been particularly successful so far. Many criminal justice advocates believe that things will not be right until the courts completely stop charging fees altogether. That being said, while some proposals have been made to this effect, it will be difficult to implement such a dramatic change all at once as it has already been estimated that making a law that completely eliminates these types of penalties will immediately result in the courts losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue per year all at once. Without another way for the courts to earn money, there will be no way to pay for judges, bailiffs, public defenders and everyone else who works for the government in the courts.
To learn more information about this serious issue, please contact criminal defense lawyer Peter M. Liss by calling (760) 643-4050.
Image by Jp Valery