Georgia Budget & Policy Institute
Fines and Fees Toolkit
Overview of the Issue
Georgia operates with a network of court systems, including many administered by local or county governments. While this current level of flexibility allows each jurisdiction to address unique needs, it also incentivizes and leaves room for lower-resourced jurisdictions to engage in abusive fines and fees assessment and collection practices that carry heavy human and economic costs.
This toolkit can help you talk to your community, lawmakers, and others about the issues with Georgia’s current fines and fees system. We encourage you to share these resources.
For more information, check out GBPI’s recent report.
• While the national average among localities’ fines and fees revenue as a share of general revenue was 2 percent, Georgia consistently ranked second worst among states with localities with fines and fees shares above 10 percent, and second worst among per capita amounts of fines paid among adult residents in 2018.
• Among the 27 Georgia counties that increased their fines and fees share of general revenue from 2019 to 2020, 12 of them had population shares that were higher than 36 percent Black, significantly higher than the overall state, where 33 percent of Georgians are Black.
• Budget cuts during COVID-19 have stripped nearly $2 million, or 5 percent, of state funding to local criminal legal systems away, leaving cities and counties to find other sources of funding—like fines and fees.
• Recent research found disparate financial harms to Black felony probationers, who ended up owing an average of $87 dollars more in outstanding balances than other racial groups, which may reflect systemic economic barriers tied to race that caused more delayed payments and greater added fees and surcharges.
• Four of nine Georgia counties that had near 10 percent or more of their revenue from fines and fees in 2019 or 2020 have a median household income that falls below the 25th percentile of all counties in the state.
• Georgia’s criminal legal system perpetuates or creates racial inequities, and fines and fees in particular have been abused in a way that keeps families in poverty and shifts the administration of the criminal legal system toward Black and Brown Georgians.
• Fines are punitive; fees shift the cost of Georgia’s criminal legal system toward those interacting with it and can be required when someone is found not guilty. Given disparate policing practices, mass incarceration and other policies that lead to the overincarceration of Black and Brown Georgians, both fines and fees are inequitable.
• In Georgia, fines and fees revenue practices have allowed cities and counties without many resources to over-rely on fines and fees revenue.
• These practices have also significantly contributed to Georgia having the highest probation rate in the country. Of the more than 430,000 Georgians who were on probation in 2018, nearly 40 percent of them were on probation for misdemeanors or traffic fines.
• Abusive fines and fees practices and lack of protections for Georgians experiencing poverty, have disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic Georgians long before the pandemic and worsened in many cities and counties during a pandemic that has been most unforgiving to low-income communities and communities of color.
Social Media Campaign
TAKE TO TWITTER!
Click to Tweet: In the criminal legal system, fines & fees harm communities of color, but state budget cuts lead more courts to rely on them. #gapol
Click to Tweet: Georgia’s criminal legal system perpetuates or creates racial inequities, and fines and fees in particular have been abused in a way that keeps families in poverty and shifts the cost of the criminal legal system toward Black and Brown Georgians. #gapol
Click to Tweet: Fines and fees force Georgians involved in the criminal legal system deeper into poverty and out of full civic participation. #gapol
Social Media Campaign
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Share these messages on your social media platform:
• By pairing punitive and revenue-raising approaches meant to deter criminal and civil infractions and fund public services, Georgia’s fines and fees approach adds another harmful layer of regressive fiscal policy by creating a two-tiered system of justice, where those who can afford to pay court debt can move forward with their lives and those who cannot—often people of color—are placed in a vicious cycle of debt, hopelessness and criminal legal system involvement.
• While an equitable fines and fees system cannot exist in our current, broken legal system, improvements to the framework and standards under which it operates are possible.
• State budget cuts have unavoidable racial consequences that manifest in several ways. Funding reductions to local courts often spur them to have greater reliance on fines and fees to generate revenue, which worsens inequities because of the divergent impacts along racial and ethnic lines.
• Georgia’s fines and fees structure has led to abusive practices across county governments, which are only partially funded by the state, as well as municipal governments, which receive no state funding at all. These practices have led to destructive outcomes for countless vulnerable Georgians who already struggling to manage and afford necessities in a pandemic that has been most unforgiving to families with low incomes.
Other Ways You Can Make a Difference
While the data is stark and no truly equitable fines and fees system can exist in the current criminal legal system, you can help promote policies that would minimize the harms by calling on state lawmakers to:
• Firmly cap local government fines and fee revenue.
• Create racial and ethnic equity guidelines for local ordinance creation, including standards that ensure that localities take formal steps to gather public input from diverse racial and ethnic populations, particularly for localities that do not have political representation that reflects the diverse communities that they govern.
• Require counties and municipalities to provide data on how much uncollected fine and fee debt is owed, to better access the costs and effectiveness of collection efforts.
• Expand the state sales tax to include taxation on a larger range of services, which can incentivize local governments to end the harmful practice of budgeting for fines and fees revenue that often leads to aggressive citation and collection practices that widen racial and ethnic inequities.
• Enable provisions that protect local governments from state mandates that are not accompanied with corresponding funding, which will remove pressures and incentives to heavily rely on fines and fees revenue.
• Prioritize state funding to ensure that local courts have training that allows municipal government branches to function independently and utilize checks and balances that maintain a prioritization of justice over revenue.
• Reduce the number of fines and fees that can be charged, which can reduce hardship for Georgians experiencing poverty, as well as the reliance on this type of revenue to fund courts and public services. • End the requirement of full payment of fines and fees before releasing the suspension of driver’s licenses.
To advocate for these policies, share these resources or contact your lawmaker directly. You can find out who your state lawmakers are here and find contact information here.