Del. Stands Out Among States In Curbing 'Unjust' Fines, Fees

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The national outlook for doing away with "unjust" judicial fines and fees remains grim, but Delaware showed significant strides by making key reforms during the past year, an access to justice watchdog said in a report released Thursday.

The National Center for Access to Justice released an updated Fines and Fees Justice Index detailing how the 50 states and the District of Columbia are performing as it relates to curbing "the unjust use of fines and fees," an announcement said. The NCAJ, an independent organization based at Fordham University School of Law, aims to offer "policy solutions to access to justice problems," according to its website.

The index examines current laws on fines and fees in each state and the District of Columbia, and provides "a roadmap for change," an NCAJ announcement said.

"Thanks to the tireless work of advocates, we have seen substantial progress on fines and fees policies in a short time," Lauren Jones, legal and policy director at the National Center for Access to Justice, said in the announcement. "Since the release of the original Fines and Fees Justice Index, a dozen states have passed new laws that eliminate unjust fines or fees, stopped the ill-advised practice of suspending driver's licenses for failure to pay fines and fees, or reduced the practice of extracting money from people simply unable to pay."

But Jones told Law360 Pulse on Thursday the "picture is still pretty depressing, sadly."

"What we've seen is states have a long way to go," she said.

But some states have started enacting measures such as abolishing juvenile court fees to help with "decriminalizing poverty in the judicial system," the announcement said.

"We're seeing, I think, what is the beginning of a movement that is starting to take hold," Jones told Law360 Pulse.

And one of the bright spots the past year was in Delaware, which the report shows "made the greatest strides on fines and fees policy," the announcement said.

In October, Gov. John Carney signed into law legislation that, "among other things, ended the practice of charging children fines and fees and halted suspensions of driver's licenses for unpaid fines and fees," the NCAJ said.

The courts are also given discretion to waive fines and fees, according to a bill synopsis, and the legislation was intended to address "the negative impact of criminal justice imposed financial obligations on defendants" and "reduce the financial burdens that disproportionally impact the poor."

"[Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr.] supports fees and fines reform and this recent legislation to reform fees and fines in Delaware — HB 244 — was the result of a collaborative effort with legislators and advocates," state judiciary representative Sean O'Sullivan told Law360 Pulse in an email Thursday.

Jones told Law360 Pulse that "Delaware is a great example of how things can change" and how states can quickly move up rankings when they enact reforms.

Delaware moved from 47th in the nation in a May 2021 ranking to 23rd on the updated Fines and Fees Justice Index released Thursday, the announcement said.

"Alabama ranked last in the nation, with only 7 points total," according to the announcement. "Washington State once again ranked first, but still received a failing score: 59 out of a possible 100 points."

Along with Washington, Rhode Island is the only other state that received a score of more than 50 on the report. It got a 52.

Click to view interactive version

The report compiles scores based on 17 policy benchmarks that "are weighted according to their relative importance."

"NCAJ has identified a set of 17 policies we believe every state should have in place to rein in these abuses," according to the organization's website. "These policies represent our vision of a minimally adequate, rights-respecting approach to monetary sanctions."

The benchmarks are grouped into areas that include: "abolition of harmful practices, like the imposition of predatory 'user fees'"; measures "to ensure that fines are cognizant of what a person can actually afford to pay"; "elimination of unreasonably punitive collateral consequences for non-payment of fines, like suspending driver's licenses and voting rights"; and mitigating "the impact of fines and fees in light of the economic harm so many families have suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic."

Law and policies of each state and the District of Columbia were analyzed to determine scores.

"In most cases, we gave states partial credit for a number of different policy approaches that represent progress relative to the dismal norms that prevail in many jurisdictions," according to the website. "Even so, the results are strikingly bad. No state performs well. What's more, even when a state has the right policies on the books, it may not be implemented properly. The road ahead is a long one."

Jones told Law360 Pulse that the purpose of the index, in part, is to create competition between states and push them to do better when it comes to reforms.

"While the progress we're seeing in some states is heartening, the overall state of play on fines and fees remains dismal," Jones said in the announcement. "Across the country, fines and fees continue to trap people in cycles of poverty and incarceration simply because they cannot afford to pay."

As an example, Jones said that 47 states "still charge people hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees for a 'free' public defender, and the debt can follow people for years."

"Twenty-one states still block people from voting when they have outstanding fines and fees," Jones added in the announcement.

NCAJ started its online, data-intensive ranking system called the Justice Index in 2014. Compiled in collaboration with volunteer attorneys from prominent law firms and major corporations, every year the Justice Index ranks 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico in certain areas, on aspects of access to justice including: access to an attorney, self-representation, language access, disability access, and fines and fees. It also makes policy recommendations to increase access to justice.

At a benefit event in October, the NCAJ and others highlighted the impact the Justice Index has already had nationwide, with Delaware and Oklahoma cited as being among states that have enacted reforms that moved them up in the rankings.

--Additional reporting by Marco Poggio. Editing by Orlando Lorenzo. Graphic by Jason Mallory.

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