The Solution

“... the overreliance on fines and fees for government revenue creates powerful incentives to impose excessive financial penalties, with disastrous consequences on people who cannot pay... perpetuating cycles of debt, instability, and criminal legal system involvement that hurts families and the public at large.”

 

American Civil Liberties Union

DE House Bill 244:

  • Will cease the suspension of driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to driving and restore licenses to those who were affected by the previous system without additional restoration fees.
  • Will get rid of all fines and fees for children, for criminal cases other than motor-vehicle cases.
  • Will get rid of particularly problematic fees: fees for using a public defender, fees for probation, and fees for using a kiosk to pay one’s fees.
  • Will require municipalities, law enforcement agencies, and the courts to track and disclose certain aspects of their current fines and fees system.
  • Will create a study group to work towards further reform.
  • Introduced in June 2021:

Successfully voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on 6/15/2021.

 

Publicly supported by Delaware Courts, Attorney General's Office, Office of Defense Services, and community groups.

 

Referred to the House Appropriations Committee for funding.

 

 

Current Legislative Goals:

                          • End the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines and fees.

By suspending licenses for unpaid fines and fees, the state endangers access to jobs. Asking whether an applicant has reliable transportation is a question on job applications. Some jobs even more specifically ask if the candidate has a car/license. In addition to making it more difficult to enter the job market, license suspensions cause many working people to lose the jobs that they already have.

 

In neighboring New Jersey, “a task force ... found that following a license suspension, 42% of people lost their jobs as a result of the suspension. Of those who lost their jobs, 45% could not find another job, and this effect was most pronounced for seniors and low-income people. Of those who were able to find new employment, 88% reported decreased wages.”

 

This is a lose-lose situation for both debtors and the state. Without employment, residents are less able to pay off court debt, contribute less to the Delaware tax base and local economy, and families are forced to rely more on government assistance.

 

                  • Eliminate all fines and fees for children.

Many youth simply have no reasonable means for paying court fines and fees. Imposing a financial penalty, in fact, undermines the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system. Pressure to seek long work hours is associated with lower grades and higher dropout rates, which are precisely the outcomes that the system should be looking to avoid.

 

The minimal revenue generated through collection of court debt from minors is insignificant to the overall budget of the courts – it is only significant to those individuals who are harmed by it.

 

  • Consider ability to pay when assessing and enforcing fines and fees.

Of the 5,807 individuals admitted to Delaware’s Level V facilities in the first six months of 2018, 724 (roughly 12.5%) were incarcerated at least in part for failure to pay outstanding fines. Of these, 595 individuals were convicted of failure to pay in addition to another charge, while 129 had no other criminal convictions. Undoubtedly, many of those 129 people were indigent and stood no chance at affording the court debt imposed on them.

 

By insisting on collecting fines and fees even from those with no ability to pay, Delaware has committed to producing enormously inequitable outcomes for its most impoverished residents. When an individual is unable to generate enough income to pay off their court debt, the penalties quickly begin to add up – late fees, arrests, and imprisonment can all be a result of simply being unable to pay off the costs associated with a misdemeanor charge.

 

This policy cannot be justified through the revenue it creates due to how expensive and inefficient the system is. In 2015, the state of Delaware spent $39,080/inmate per year, so any prison sentence for unpaid court debt is a significant net loss for the state. Even among those who do not face detention, studies have shown that every dollar collected through fines and fees is 121 times more expensive to collect than the same dollar collected through taxes.

 

  • Require municipalities, law enforcement agencies, and courts to track and disclose how much of their revenue comes from fines and fees.

Most fees imposed by Delaware courts are ostensibly collected to support specific funds, such as the Fund to Combat Violent Crimes or the Public Defender Fee. However, due to a lack of tracking and oversight, there is almost no public knowledge of how the collected fines and fees are dispersed. In fact, the Town of Newport was found in 2019 to be diverting money from the Victim's Compensation Fund to the general fund for town expenses.

 

As long as Delaware continues to charge its residents fines and fees, accountability for where that money goes and how it is used is necessary to prevent corruption and misuse.

 

  • Compile the records of various court-debt balances into one statewide record system so people can see the total amount of fines and fees they owe, and easily make payments.

 

 

Success in Other States:

                          • Phoenix, Ariz., started a program in 2016 that offered those with suspended driver's licenses immediate reinstatement. Fifty-three percent of people with reinstated driver’s licenses found employment as a result of reinstatement, and over 40% reported an increase in income. Between January and September, the program added 1,904 job years of employment, $87 million in labor income and $149.6 million in GDP.

 

                  • In 2017, Texas passed legislation that requires courts to assess a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing fines and fees and offers modified payment plans and community service for those who cannot pay. As a result, more defendants were able to pay their court debt, and collections of fines and fees rose 6.36% from 2015 to 2018 while arrest warrants went down 7% (National Center for State Courts).

 

 

Prior Efforts in Delaware:

                          • In 2019, SB39 was proposed, which would have eliminated driver's license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees, eliminated late fees, and required courts to consider a defendant’s ability to pay before imposing a fine or fee. It was unable to pass through the Senate Judiciary committee.

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