A single misdemeanor with a $100 fine can balloon into hundreds of dollars in fees owed to the courts. These fees are not intended as a punishment or deterrent -- their purpose is to generate money to pay for certain government functions.
According to a report from the U.S. Federal Reserve, for an unexpected $400 expense "27% would borrow or sell something to pay for the expense, and 12% would not be able to cover the expense at all.” In the first six months of 2018, 129 people were sentenced to prison ONLY for failing to pay Delaware Court ordered fines and fees.
Failing to pay a fine or fee can quickly lead to escalating punishment – arrest warrants and driver’s license suspensions. An arrest or loss of the ability to drive frequently leads to loss of employment, only making it more difficult to pay off court debt. In 2017 Delaware suspended 20,679 driver's licenses for failure to pay court-ordered fines and fees and 44,889 warrants for failure to pay were issued for just non-felony offenses.
A Delaware Access to Justice Commission’s Subcommittee on Fairness in the Adult Criminal Justice System finding in 2016 stated that “arrests are more common in urban areas with a greater share of residents that are African American and impoverished.”
The CEDP seeks a world where one’s poverty does not affect how they are punished in the criminal justice system. This can be achieved through attainable, common sense legislative changes.
The bottom line is that everyone makes mistakes. The severity of the consequences of those mistakes should not be dictated by one’s poverty level.
What is the Campaign to End Debtor’s Prison?
We are a group of Delaware residents who seek to reform the system of court-imposed fines and fees that too often lead to financial insecurity, loss of employment, and imprisonment. We believe that poverty is not a crime and an inability to pay should not result in a harsher penalty.
This campaign was launched in the summer of 2019 under the auspices of Network Delaware. The campaign quickly learned that the Delaware Center for Justice had been researching fines and fees and developing proposed state legislation. The campaign met monthly in the basement of SsAM Episcopal Church and strategized on how to support a previously introduced fines and fees reform bill (the old SB39). Efforts included getting Wilmington City Council to pass a supportive resolution, researching solutions, developing issue education materials, recruiting more volunteers and meeting with legislators. COVID brought an abrupt end to possible legislative progress in 2020. The campaign pivoted to advocating for and then disseminating information about a COVID-necessitated moratorium on consequences for failure to pay court fines and fees. The latter part of 2020 was spent pushing for better and bolder fines/fees draft legislation and priming the pump for strong community support.