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Lisa Foster on the Impact of Court Fines and Fees & COVID-19

After reading “Lisa Foster on the Impact of Court Fines and Fees,” please discuss something you have learned about the impact of fines and fees. 

Given COVID-19, consider how fines and fees policies might exacerbate the problems imposed by monetary sanctions? How might short-term changes in policies be applied permanently to alleviate the pressures imposed by the “poverty penalty”?

As Lisa Foster states, legislators have an "infinite variety of take money away from people in the justice system." These same legislators will likely search for new streams of revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, leading to the imposition of even more fines and fees on low-income populations. 

Lisa Foster's comments regarding judicial training on fines and fees are a valuable idea for reform. Awareness of the problem is certainly key, and I look forward to hearing more of Ms. Foster's reform ideas in next Friday's panel. 

I'm curious whether or not cities that are looking to increase fines and fees due to the financial challenges of Covid have considered the model created by the federal government in regard to the temporary moratorium on loan interest. The interest moratorium has been essential to ensuring that citizens will be able to contribute to the economy when things return to "normal". The tax revenue on that participation far outweighs the value of loan interest. Should these state governments be considering that increased fines and fees will only decrease participation in the market, thereby reducing state tax revenue and harming local business?

ronicahutchison has reacted to this post.

The statistic about 43 states suspending driver's licenses in cases of unpaid fines or fees was particularly horrifying. It seems that payment of fines or fees has no relation to one's ability to drive safely and responsibly on the road. From a law and economics perspective, the entanglement of fine/fee law with other state-granted privileges seems to seem utterly ineffectual with regard to incentivizing better behavior in exercise of those state-granted privileges. In other words, citizens are compelled to pay by being threatened with having relatively unrelated privileges or rights taken away, and this phenomenon does not motivate citizens to be better drivers, gun owners, voters, etc. (not that of those privileges/rights are on the same level, but you get the point).  Should government be making certain privileges and rights contingent on performance that has little to do with those privileges and rights? 

Foster's discussion of the high cost of phone calls for people who are incarcerated is particularly relevant in the COVID-19 context. Given that visitations are now often prohibited to prevent the spread of COVID-19, phone calls are the only way for people to stay connected to their loved ones. These fees are astronomically high and make it often infeasible to pay for phone calls, leaving people isolated while fearing for their lives. All prisons and jails should provide fee phone calls, especially now.  

The Covid-19 Recession cannot be cured with more fines and fees. Fines and fees will only make the recession worse. Moreover, it is possible for city governments to make a profit without imposing fines and fees. As Foster mentions, the New York City Council became the first jurisdiction in the country to provide free phone calls from jail, and the city actually profited, itself, off those phone calls. 

Instead of scaling up fines and fees that exacerbate poverty, state and local governments should be taking action to lessen the harms of Covid-19 on communities. I look forward to hearing more about Ms. Foster's policy recommendations to solve this issue. 

As Amy stated above, we should expect to see an increase in fines and fees as legislators grapple with the economic crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is important that those of us involved in the justice system remain aware of these fines and fees and the impact they are having, especially on indigent defendants.

Foster commented on the particular outrage she feels due to the fact that courts, which are supposed to be these bringers and beacons of justice, are the ones instituting and perpetuating these unjust systems of fines and fees. This reminded me of a discussion during a  symposium panel this week about how things that are associated with “the system” are particularly hard to strike down. For example, cash bail and extreme fines have been so normalized, that when any reform or abolishment is brought up, a lot of the resistance is very deep seeded because any suggestion to reform these things feels like a suggestion to dismantle our institutions — when in reality this is not necessarily the case. Hearing Foster’s thoughts as a former judge were particularly refreshing, and perhaps if people leading our institutions start recognizing these reforms as what they are — and not simply a dismantlement of our norms — then there can be meaningful change.

In reading Judge Foster’s thoughts on fines and fees, I was struck by the comment at the end of the article regarding the training of judges. I agree that it seems that the best way to prevent the disparate impact that fines and fees have is to educate judges on the impact of theses fees, rather than passing sweeping legislation that may not change the outcome for individual defendants in smaller, local courts. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem created by these fees, and training judges so they understand the discrepancies caused by imposing fines and fees may help to ease the burden that many defendants are feeling during the pandemic.