What Would It Take for States to Reform Local Fines and Fees?

Criminal legal system penalties are a small share of revenues, but can be a heavy burden on residents

Fines and fees make up a small share of state and local revenue overall, but they can be devastating for low-income residents, especially Black, Latine, and Native American households, who are disproportionately affected by criminal legal systems. These penalties, such as traffic tickets and court costs, also create harmful incentives for police departments and courts.

States flush with budget surpluses and fiscal recovery funds could use this opportunity to reform fines and fees—and help their localities do the same. Cities and towns tend to rely more on these revenues than state governments do. Some have few other revenue options, making reforms challenging.

Wiping away fines and fees for even just one year, and backfilling that revenue with state funds, could take a heavy burden off some residents and give local policymakers and administrators the fiscal flexibility to explore more equitable and reliable revenue sources. This feature shows what it would take for states to do just that.


In 2019, state and local governments raised $14.8 billion from fines and fees, with $5.6 billion from states and $9.2 billion from localities. But this did not account for all fines and fees assessed because many go unpaid. Court debt across the nation totals tens of billions, and those who are charged but unable to pay can face surcharge fees, license suspensions, loss of voting rights, and incarceration.

But reforms are underway in some places. In California, for example, the Families over Fees Act and subsequent legislation permanently repealed 40 administrative fees, backfilled $65 million in lost local revenues with a state appropriation, and discharged an estimated $16 billion in fee debt that was considered largely uncollectible. And in Colorado, Louisiana, Texas, and other states, many juvenile fines and fees have recently been eliminated.

With record budget surpluses and federal funds, many states have the fiscal resources to pursue these and other types of fines and fees reforms.


States Can Help Reduce the Burdens of Harmful Fines and Fees. Here’s How.

State and Local Backgrounders: Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures

Public Safety or Speed Traps? The Conflicts of Interest Behind Fines and Fees

Fines and Forfeitures and Racial Disparities

Ferguson City Finances: Not the New Normal

FFJC Policy Guidance: Eliminating Criminal Legal System Fees and Discharging Debt

Step One to an Antiracist State Revenue Policy: Eliminate Criminal Justice Fees and Reform Fines

The High Price of Using Justice Fines and Fees to Fund Government

The Steep Costs of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines

A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor

As Court Fees Rise, the Poor Are Paying the Price

Fee Abolition and the Promise of Debt Free Justice for Young People and Their Families in California

Last updatedSeptember 28, 2022