Commentary: For many, court fees and fines put justice out of reach

For many of us, a traffic infraction, such as an illegal U-turn or speeding ticket is, at best, a minor inconvenience. We may have the option of attending traffic school, which, in addition to paying a fine, keeps our driving records clean. However, for many Virginians, this path is simply not available due to real inability to pay. A $30 fine for an improper U-turn can expand into more than a $200 debt if one cannot afford to pay immediately and must utilize a payment plan. Clearly, this increased total far exceeds the amount intended to serve as “punishment.”

This scenario cannot be summarily dismissed as a mere outlier. According to the City of Richmond’s 2020 Annual Performance Report, approximately 19% of the city’s population lives at or below the poverty line, but that figure is disproportionately higher for Black residents at nearly 32%. Heartbreakingly, nearly 40% of Richmond children younger than 18 live in poverty.

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Joel Mier

Joel Mier

As a result, minor traffic violations and other misdemeanors often result not in jail time but in serious and lengthy hardship, increasing familial financial instability and creating the very serious risk of forcing people into the cycle of the criminal legal system. According to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, if court costs go unpaid, judges can order a jail sentence of up to 60 days and add an additional fine of up to $500.

While financial penalties are long-standing tools of the criminal justice system, fines and fees have very different intentions. Fines are intended to function both as punishment for an underlying offense as well as a deterrence to possible future actions. Fees, however, are explicitly designed to raise revenue for the government. These fees, which can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars, get charged at every step in the system — from the courtroom to jail to probation.

For example, if someone is convicted of a misdemeanor or felony, a fixed fee is assessed that can range from $80 for a single misdemeanor to $375 for a felony. For certain misdemeanors — and all felonies — if convicted, citizens must submit to DNA testing and pay $53. Those who are assigned a court-appointed attorney because of an inability to pay for a private attorney — guaranteed by the Constitution — will likely pay for the partial cost of their representation. And those convicted of a traffic or criminal conviction may have to pay $20 for courtroom security. The costs just pile up.

For those required to be jailed, fees continue to accumulate. To simply enter jail, there can be a “processing” fee of up to $25 as well as a $3 per day fee for being confined in the jail. If given the opportunity to serve sentences only on weekends, citizens must pay extra. And if a court orders home monitoring in-lieu of incarceration or while on probation, this too results in extra fees that must be paid.

In its 2021 report, the Vera Institute of Justice found that the Virginia state government and local governments collected at least $409 million in criminal justice fines and fees in 2019, including $47 million from people incarcerated in jails throughout the state. Court-imposed fines and fees can create poverty traps, particularly true for individuals who are unable to pay debts in full upfront as they can be subject to additional fees and interest rates on outstanding balances, as well as potential wage garnishment.

driver's licenses

During an event in Richmond on July 2, 2019, former Gov. Ralph Northam highlights the reinstatement of driver’s licenses suspended for unpaid court fees and fines.

Even for the most minor offenses, fines and fees can result in significant debt that deepens poverty and keeps people tethered to the criminal justice system. Individual amounts may be small to many of us, but they can quickly add up, meaning lower-income people may face hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated debt that they’re simply unable to pay. Families often must decide whether or not to use money needed for food or rent or utilities to pay court fees and prevent further descent into the criminal justice cycle. The Brennan Center for Justice found in a 2019 report that nearly 2 in 3 families with an incarcerated family member were unable to meet basic household needs, such as food and rent. Families of those who are incarcerated suffer doubly: depriving them of a wage earner while adding new court costs to the defendant’s debts.

While there are a few social service and nonprofit organizations chartered to address this cause, there are not enough. What is truly needed is legislative action. Virginia has made positive gains in recent years. In 2020, the state stopped its policy of suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals who had unpaid debt.

A Fines and Fees Justice Center report from 2021 identified that this practice kept nearly 1 million Virginians from driving legally, half of whom were Black. An inability to drive impacts one’s ability to work, transport family to school or medical appointments, and can have a detrimental effect on a family’s financial well-being. We should applaud our state for rescinding this policy. While we can continue to work with the legislature to make further gains in reducing the long-lasting burden of legal fines and fees, we should celebrate and embrace the emergence of a new resource to aid families: the Rainy Day Fund, which was established in 2021 by a group of public defenders, social workers and concerned citizens trying to help people escape the sticky tendrils of the criminal legal system. Launching this week in Richmond, the organization is on a mission to support individuals and their families in avoiding systematic involvement in the legal system by helping to reduce their financial burdens associated with that system. While we wait for the legislature to address the systemic issues that can keep our neighbors ensnared by oppressive legal fines and fees, we can continue to make progress, one family at a time. The Rainy Day Fund is partnering with other Virginia organizations and represents a significant tool for individuals seeking assistance to break from our legal system’s persistent hold in order for them to build brighter futures for themselves and their families.

Joel Mier is the managing partner of The Mier Practice, a management consulting firm focused on growth, and a lecturer of marketing at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond. Contact Mier at

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