American justice is built to a disturbing degree on fining citizens, often very poor ones, for petty crimes. In the COVID-19 age of unprecedented unemployment, paying those fines has become harder than ever for many.
The Fines and Fees Justice Center is keeping track of states' reactions to the pandemic age. Some good news: The $1,200 checks from the federal government are being protected from garnishment for outstanding fines across the board.
Decent actions taken by states and localities when it comes to COVID-19 include:
• California is, on the state level, suspending criminal justice and most other government-owed debt collections via "wage garnishments, bank levies, and tax intercepts" (including a cessation of levies and license suspensions for child support payments) and some California localities are doing the same for their citizen-owed fines.
• Delaware has "suspended the active collection of payment for criminal, civil and traffic assessments"; Louisiana has also "suspended the requirement to make scheduled payments of fines, fees and court costs until further notice"; Oregon has similarly stopped imposing "late fees, suspending driver licenses for nonpayment, sending delinquency notices, imposing collection fees/referring new cases to collections, and issuing new garnishments."
• Florida is suspending most fine-triggered drivers license suspensions and Miami Dade County has decided that those "whose criminal, misdemeanor, or traffic payment plans are cancelled due to non payment during the timeframe that the courthouses are closed to the public, can re-enroll without any penalty or additional fees."
• Idaho is giving two-month extensions on hearings regarding fines; a couple of Georgia counties are giving 90-day extensions on municipal fines and fees; various Illinois cities and counties are giving varied length extensions or halts in interest accrual on fines due or the time they'll be turned over to collection agencies; Iowa is also suspending delinquency fees on fines owed for more than 30 days; Minnesota is acting similarly.
• Maine is "vacating warrants for unpaid fines, restitution, court-appointed counsel fees, failure to appear for unpaid fine hearings, and other failure to appear warrants"; Brooklyn, New York, has also declared "no warrants or civil judgments will be issued for unpaid court debt" for 60 to 90 days; Kentucky is also "prohibiting the arrest or detention of any person served with a warrant for nonpayment of court costs, fees, or fines, or with a warrant for a failure to appear on a violation"; Nebraska is doing similarly.
• Reading, Pennsylvania, in an attempt to cease creating new debt slaves to the city, has done a lot to make things easier, including ending late penalties, extending deadlines for challenging citations; ending new parking tickets entirely (including at meters) and no more booting cars for now.
The Marshall Project reports some of the not-so-good news for those burdened with petty fines: Cops in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for example, are continuing "to arrest people for failing to pay court debts—even ones more than a decade old."
Courts and governments have a strong incentive to show no mercy to poor Americans trapped in their fines and fees machinery, since, as The Marshall Project notes, "Two main sources of revenue—sales taxes from now-shuttered restaurants and bars, and traffic tickets from now-empty highways—have cratered. This comes at a time when officials are straining to pay for, among other things, desperately needed medical equipment and unemployment benefits for record numbers of laid-off workers." Some are thus in the COVID-19 age adding new reasons to fine citizens, including "for violating orders to stay at home and wear masks."
Such fines are enough to crush many poor Americans even in better times, but localities almost always think they need their payoff. More than $50 billion in such fines are due in America for either actual crimes or merely for related late fees. court costs, and interest.
One looming problem is a lot of those prophylactic measures have short time limits, and the likelihood that most Americans who owe fines for petty crimes will be in a better position to pay them in 60 to 90 days seems very small. The courts will soon either need to rethink their policies or see lots of new fines, warrants, and court cases, in a time when fines will be harder than ever to pay and shoving more citizens in jails and prisons is particularly cruel.