by Jessica M. Eaglin, Associate Professor, Indiana University Maurer School of Law
Fees and fines provide an appealing method of punishment in states facing the pressures of mass incarceration and continued budget constraints. But until courts receive meaningful guidance on how and when to impose fees and fines, and unless legislatures exercise meaningful restraint on the creation of user fees in particular, this punitive practice will continue to do more harm than good for defendants, local justice systems and society at large.
Fees and fines are the economic sanctions imposed on defendants through the criminal justice system. Unlike punitive fines or restitution to compensate the victim of crimes, “user fees” are imposed solely to raise revenue. User fees range from nominal fees to obtain free public defender services to daily fines for use of GPS monitoring systems that supervise defendants pretrial or on probation to daily fines for incarceration in jail, and more.
As states face severe budget constraints, the “offender-funded” model of criminal justice – where critical costs to running the justice system are pushed onto the defendants in the system – becomes more prevalent. Many state courts simply cannot function with the amount of money allocated by their legislatures, so they are resorting to creative alternatives that are often costly for defendants entering the justice system. Offensive examples spatter the news weekly: defendant fees cover toilet paper in jail; court-imposed home supervision technology; or unmet court expenses like coffee and office supplies and court support staff and other government operations.