Government-levied fines and fees reform

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.
Target Population
Community-wide, Adults and families
Key Stakeholders
Mayor or County Executive's Office, District Attorney's Office, Budget/Finance Department, Police/Sheriff's Department, Nonprofit Partner, Program Evaluation Team

What evidence supports this strategy?

Promising

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.

How does fines and fees reform impact economic mobility?

  • Waiving debt for minor offenses: Eliminating government-levied fines and fees for minor offenses can help residents reduce their debt. Research indicates that eliminating fines and fees in areas such as traffic enforcement support financial stability and wealth building, while helping residents avoid chronic debt.
  • Clearing criminal records: Some fines and fees reform efforts include broad expungement of criminal records for minor offenses. Research indicates that having a criminal record for a minor offense disproportionately harms people with low-incomes and people of color, and, largely as a result of background checks, can create major barriers to securing stable employment, housing, and education, limiting upward mobility severely.
  • Restoring access to key upward mobility levers: Fines and fees reform can facilitate residents regaining their driver’s licenses, library memberships, and more. Driver’s licenses, research shows, are crucial to accessing employment, health care, and a range of other levers for upward mobility. Similarly, public libraries in cities provide residents access to many services that support upward mobility, like access to the internet, job skills training, and adult literacy programming.

Best practices in implementation

  • 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.