New Study Details Best Practices for Criminal Justice Fine and Fee Reform 6
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New Study Details Best Practices for Criminal Justice Fine and Fee Reform

Today, PFM’s Center for Justice & Safety Finance released an expert study from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy that includes best practices for reforming the policies that dictate criminal justice system fines and fees. The new study, “Reforming Fine & Fee Policies in the Criminal Justice System”, comes at a time when cities and counties across the country are seeking to address systemic racism, with many reexamining the roles of public safety and criminal justice in particular.

Eliminating fines and fees in the criminal justice system has emerged as one important area for reform, as research shows they overwhelmingly burden low income individuals while providing no significant benefit to public safety.  

“Fines and fees are essentially a regressive poor tax that disproportionately impacts Black and Latinx communities,” said Sarah Schirmer, deputy director of the Center for Justice & Safety Finance. “This type of revenue stream is typically considered high pain for the financial distress imposed on community members and low gain because they’re incredibly difficult and costly to collect. At the end of the day, no one wins.”

The study finds that by focusing on “process, analysis, and action,” local governments can begin to address long-standing inequities of race, ethnicity, and income and at the same time increase the sustainability and transparency of fiscal choices without jeopardizing public safety.

“These financial obligations significantly burden individuals while often bearing no relation to the underlying offense committed,” said Paula Worthington, author of the study and senior lecturer at Harris Public Policy. “States, counties, and cities use these revenues to essentially shift the cost of the criminal justice system from taxpayers to defendants, creating the potential for officials to prioritize revenue generation over the fair administration of justice.”

A number of communities, including San Francisco, Alameda, and Los Angeles Counties in California and Ramsey County in Minnesota, are highlighted in the study as examples of best practices.

In 2019, the Center began working with Ramsey County as well as Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee and Dallas County, Texas to reduce or eliminate each county’s reliance on criminal fines and fees as a revenue source. This past April, Ramsey County eliminated nearly a dozen fees levied against people in the local correctional facility and on probation that disproportionately affected low-income families and communities of color.

“To ensure economic prosperity reached more people, and in an equitable way, we needed to take a critical look at our criminal justice system,” said Ramsey County Commissioner and Board Chair, Toni Carter . “It became quickly obvious the antiquated policies we had in place around fines and fees did not align with our values and priorities and were in fact detrimental to building a community where all people have value and can thrive.” 

The technical assistance provided by the Center to support county reforms was made possible by a $1.2 million Arnold Ventures grant to PFM.

“At a time when local governments are struggling to confront the economic crisis brought about by the pandemic, eliminating fines and fees can immediately improve people’s lives and work towards racial equity within the criminal justice system,” said Julie James, director of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. “Fines and fees remain an unreliable source of government funding, and they make it more difficult for people involved with the criminal justice system to get back on track. Now more than ever we must be on guard against these unfair and discriminatory obstacles to success.”

About the Center for Justice & Safety Finance

PFM’s Center for Justice & Safety Finance supports state and local governments in developing and implementing safety and justice policies that are effective and efficient in the advancement of both civil rights and civil order. With our fiscal expertise, we know that the smartest budget policy is almost always the one that most advances justice. Now more than ever, local governments are being called upon to re-examine the role of the criminal justice system and rethink policing in unprecedented ways. At the Center, we provide local governments with the expert advice and assistance to understand the complexities of issues related to policy, operations and budget.

About Arnold Ventures

The core objective of Arnold Ventures is to improve the lives of individuals by strengthening our nation’s social, governmental, and economic systems. Its investments are focused on criminal justice, education, health care, and several other key areas. Arnold Ventures has offices in Houston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. 

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Company Name: PFM Center for Justice and Safety Finance
Contact Person: Lacie Newton
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