The Future of Past Due Court Fines


May 15, 2018Don Murphy

Concerns about the most fair and effective methods to encourage citizens’ compliance with court orders are sweeping the U.S., but as old enforcement tools fall out of favor, new ones are needed.

When a judge orders a fine, it is expected that the fine gets paid.  If payments are late, a decision must be made that balances the judge’s order against a citizen’s ability to comply. Strict enforcement via jail time for those who can’t pay results in additional costs for both the defendant and the local court system, extracting a penalty beyond the judge’s original intent. As courts respond to concerns about historical enforcement methods, more discussion and education about alternative solutions that encourage and recognize the intent to comply should follow.

Reform Dialogue after Ferguson, Mo.

In August of 2014, the protests that broke out in Ferguson, Mo. following the police shooting of African-American teenager Michael Brown sparked a federal investigation into bias in the criminal justice system. Investigators concluded that widespread bias existed not only in the police force but also local courts. This inquiry and subsequent, similar cases has resulted in reform dialogue about many aspects of the justice system, including what should be done when defendants cannot or do not pay court-imposed fines.

In 2016, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators launched a National Task Force on the reform of fines, fees, and  bail practices  to review court options.  The task force’s mandates included creating statutes, rules, policies, and procedures for setting, collecting and waiving court-imposed payments and creating best practices in the collection of fines, fees, and bail bonds.

Prompted by the National Task Force recommendations, courts across the country began reducing jail time sanctions for non-payment of fines turning to focus towards other options such as driver’s license suspensions. As was the case with jail sanctions for nonpayment of fines, driver’s license suspensions ignited public debate.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently reported that two million registered drivers in Florida have a suspended license, including those for unpaid court fees. A suspended license does not stop anyone from getting behind the wheel of a car. It does, however, add to their legal and financial woes, creating a vicious cycle for both the citizen and court personnel.

Compliance Counseling Customer Service

Courts in states across the country are looking at alternatives in lieu of ordering either jail time or driver’s license suspensions when fines go unpaid, according to the 2017 Trends in State Courts published by the National Center for State Courts.  Among those alternatives, compliance counseling from the day of court sentencing to payment closure is a viable option to encourage court fine compliance.

Flexible payment plans and community service hours should be offered more broadly to citizens who are unable to pay fines. More state funding also is needed to give clerk’s offices the ability to enroll, monitor, and counsel participants on alternative payment plans.

A helping hand that allows citizens the opportunity to succeed meets the court obligation and addresses the community need.