Strategy overview

  • Eliminating penalties for minor offenses: Policies to reform government-levied fines and fees generally focus on reducing or eliminating financial penalties for minor offenses, such as parking tickets, overdue fees at libraries, or "quality of life" offenses, like loitering.
  • Reform with a racial equity lens: Efforts to reduce the impact of government-levied fines and fees are generally rooted in the recognition that outstanding financial penalties for minor offenses can create significant barriers to upward economic mobility and general well-being. Individuals with suspended driver's licenses often struggle to get to work, and outstanding government debt can impact individuals' ability to secure housing. In many instances, efforts to reform government-levied fines and fees are concentrated on offenses that affect residents with low incomes and/or communities of color.
  • Waiving existing debt: Reform initiatives often include large-scale waiving of existing debt , which often enables the restoration of voting rights, driver's licenses, library membership, and more.
  • Expunging and dismissing minor offenses: As part of broader fines and fees reform, some jurisdictions help residents expunge their criminal records for past offenses; similarly, ongoing cases may be dismissed.

Internal evaluations from two government-levied fines and fees reform efforts found programs were effective in reducing debt, expunging criminal records, and restoring drivers licenses and library cards.

  • Internal evaluations from San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project found the initiative waived $32 million in criminal justice debt for 21,000 residents, while also lifting holds on 88,000 driver's licenses and renewing access to 17,000 library cards.

  • An internal evaluation of the Durham DEAR program increased criminal record expunction by 59 percent, waived $2.7 million in traffic-related fines and fees debt for 11,000+ residents, and dismissed charges for minor offenses for 35,000 residents.

Reforming government-levied fines and fees has been shown to improve financial security, an outcome identified by the Urban Institute as predictive of upward mobility.

City and county leaders can assess local conditions for this outcome using the metrics below, identified by the Urban Institute. This assessment can be used to determine whether this strategy is appropriate for their community. (Note: these metrics are a starting point for self-assessment and are not intended to be comprehensive.)

All cities and counties with populations over 75,000 can receive a customized data sheet here.

  • Measuring financial security in your community: Examine the share of households with debt in collections. These data are available from the Urban Institute’s Debt in America website.

  • Cultivate cross-agency buy-in: Successful reforms often require multiple agencies within and across jurisdictions (i.e. a county district attorney’s office and a city treasurer’s office). From the earlier stages of design, reform champions should prioritize convening all agencies that could be involved in the implementation process to establish core responsibilities, build trust, and leverage all available capacity.
  • Address administrative burdens hindering reform implementation: Some reforms require significant administrative capacity, such as restoring drivers licenses or waiving debt. Invest in additional staff and software (such as automated income verification tools) to reduce government-side barriers to implementation.
  • Deep engagement with community members: Building trust with individuals with previous involvement in the justice system can be a significant challenge. One-on-one engagement, robust listening sessions, and ongoing partnerships with community members and local non-profit organizations can ensure that community experiences and concerns help inform how initiatives take shape. Engagement can include regular meetings with community coalitions, interviews with justice-involved individuals, and more.
  • Build the case for reform with existing data: In many cases, analyzing data and communicating findings to the public can help build a sense of urgency for reform. For instance, publicizing the number of residents with suspended driver's licenses due to outstanding fees can demonstrate the scale of the challenge and persuade policymakers that reforms are needed.