Fed Shines New Light On Burden Of Court Debt

By RJ Vogt | May 17, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

Six percent of all U.S. adults — including 1 in 5 of those who've had an immediate family member in prison or jail — are struggling under the weight of court debt from fines and fees, according to a report released Thursday by the Federal Reserve Board.

Drawing on surveys from October and early April, the 2019 Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households found that such debt often correlates to other financial issues: 43% of those with outstanding legal expenses also had medical debt, while 66% also had credit card debt.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said the report marks the Fed's first foray into analyzing the economic impact that fines and fees have on American families.

"The Federal Reserve is the definitive authority on economic conditions in the country," Eisen said. "So the fact that they recognized that court costs and legal fees can affect American households, and for years after they incur these debts, is hugely significant."

Eisen co-authored the Brennan Center's November report The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines, which highlighted how fines and fees are inefficient methods of government revenue — sometimes costing more to collect and enforce than they provide in revenue.

"We found it costs jurisdictions 121 times more to collect fees and fines than it costs the Internal Revenue Service to gather taxes," she said.

Nevertheless, numerous municipalities across America rely on fines and fees for up to a quarter of their budgets. These costs include everything from traffic tickets to public defender fees, often compounding when people can't pay and sometimes culminating in arrest warrants and incarceration.

The libertarian public interest firm Institute for Justice released a report earlier this month that found court revenue reliance appears most prevalent in Georgia, where at least one city is facing a lawsuit over allegations that it relies too heavily on citations for things like growing high weeds or exiting a turn lane before reaching an intersection.

In 2014, the issue of excessive fines and fees rose to national prominence after a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, spurred a U.S. Department of Justice investigation. Among other things, the DOJ found police were disproportionately targeting black people for traffic stops, citations and arrests that produced 23% of the town's revenue.

Since then, many states have taken steps to curb revenue-based policing, but according to the Fed's report, racial disparities persist at a national level: 12% of black families reported unpaid legal expenses, fines or court costs, as compared to just 5% of white families and 9% of Hispanic families.

More than a third of black families reported ever having a family member in prison or jail, nearly twice the number of white families.

The Fed also noted that less than half of those with unpaid legal debts were fully banked, meaning they rely on alternative services like pawn shop or payday loans for all or some of their financial needs.

Compared to people who don't have outstanding legal expenses, the survey found those facing fines and fees were twice as likely to be denied credit and more than twice as likely to be living without any kind of bank account at all.

Although Eisen said it's been encouraging to see many jurisdictions waiving fees and fines or suspending collection efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic, she expressed concern that the economic downturn could lead some places to increase reliance on courts.

"We saw after the last recession that courts started to increase the amounts of fees that they asked users to pay because they needed to raise revenue," she said. "That's a huge fear right now."

In addition to the debt analysis, the 68-page report highlighted how the number of Americans who say they're "doing OK" financially plummeted from 75% of adults in October to 43% in April.

In a statement, Federal Reserve Board Gov. Michelle W. Bowman said the collected data will be vital to the Fed's consideration of next steps during the pandemic.

"The survey data show that early in the public health crisis, a larger fraction of Americans were facing financial hardship than in the fall of 2019," she added.

She could not be reached for additional comment on why the Fed included debt in its annual survey this year or how it framed its questions to survey respondents. Lisa Foster, co-founder of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said that whatever the reason, the fact that the Fed is talking about how court debt affects people is a "huge accomplishment."

"Until we get folks thinking about it, we won't be able to get a point where we can end it," she added.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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