Court-ordered fines and fees are a big business in Colorado, generating $132.8 million in 2019 alone, according to a new state report.
Fines and fees resulting from court cases disproportionately affect poorer people, who often face compounding debt when they cannot pay what they owe. Democratic state lawmakers promise to attempt reform when they return to the Capitol next year.
Fines are defined by the state as monetary punishment for a crime, whereas a fee is an “administrative assessment” to help courts recover costs. These can really add up, according to the report published Friday by Legislative Council, which provides nonpartisan research and analysis for the legislature.
“Fees and surcharges may substantially increase a defendant’s court-ordered debt,” the report reads. “For example, an individual convicted of a level 4 drug felony may be ordered by the judge to pay the minimum fine of $1,000. The defendant, however, commonly leaves court owing upwards of $2,500 after state and county fees are added to the fine, including, but not limited to, a mandatory drug offender surcharge of $1,500, a public defender fee of $25, and a $40 docket fee, among others.”
There is a growing movement in the country, including at Colorado’s statehouse, to abolish certain fines and fees in recognition of the burden on poor people.
“These fines and fees create a two-tiered system of justice,” said Joanna Weiss, the co-director of the New York-based Fines and Fees Justice Center, which advocates for reform. “For someone who can afford to pay … it may sting for a moment. For people who are poor, they’re choosing between paying for food, paying for medicine, having a roof over their head, and paying fines and fees.”
There has been no recent, comprehensive and publicly available analysis of just how severely fines and fees burden people at various income levels, but research out of Alabama offers data showing people with outstanding court debts were most likely to give up utilities, groceries, and housing payments to make good with the court.
The nonprofit Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that about half of survey respondents used payday or title loans to pay off their debts, and that close to two in five respondents admitted to committing another crime — stealing, or selling drugs, for example — to pay off their debt.
“I don’t think we should, by any means, be balancing our state budget on the backs of poor people if they can’t pay their fees,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, a Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties, and who works as a deputy district attorney in Eagle.
But, as the report from Legislative Council shows, fines and fees are critical fuel for government budgets. The $132.8 million in revenue last year was distributed to a slew of places, including restitution and victim assistance programs. Nine percent went to the state’s general fund.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said she’ll introduce a bill next year to end driver’s license suspensions for nonpayment of court debts. Roberts said he backs the policy but wonders about the fiscal impact. He said he’s not sure how he’d vote on that bill.
“It depends,” Roberts said. “We’re waiting to see what the budget forecast looks like.”
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