The Fee Trap: Alabama court costs and fines put burden on those least able to pay

Counties use fines and fees to generate revenues

By: - September 18, 2023 1:00 pm

Northport residents stand in line to enter the courtroom at the Northport Public Safety Building in Northport. (Photo by Will McLelland/For Alabama Reflector)

During a lunch break last May, Kevin Jackson was driving in Northport when a car in front of him collided with another vehicle.

Jackson, who said he was not involved in the collision, got pulled over by a police officer, who alleged that Jackson was fleeing the scene.

“I was on my lunch break, and I was smoking,” Jackson said. “He took me to jail for possession of marijuana.”

The Fee Trap

How fines, fees and charges cost Alabamians

Sept. 12: Alabama leans heavily on fees and charges, as well as fines and fees to fund government. But they fall hardest on those least able to pay, and often fall short of generating money to keep services going.

Sept. 13: When the state abolished concealed carry pistol fees, sheriffs found themselves without a major revenue source. To make up for the loss, many other charges went up.

Sept. 14: Fees stack up on people in Alabama’s criminal justice system — even on people sent to diversion programs.

He was taken into custody and remained in jail for 10 days until he managed to post bond. Upon release, Jackson had to return to court in June to deal with the incident.

At municipal court, Jackson became fully aware of just how steep a financial penalty he would pay. The court imposed a fine of $280 for marijuana possession. That was followed by another fine for not having insurance while driving, which amounted to another $180.

The court costs alone totaled more than $300. That doesn’t include the drug classes he had to pay for, which is at least another $100.

“It is breaking my pockets,” said Jackson, who works as a general contractor. “Well, it is another $150 out of my pocket that I could be putting towards a bill, the water bill. Bills are going up, not just court fees.”

Like Jackson, others in court who committed different infractions will bear a financial burden, not only for their crimes, but for the additional fees imposed by the state and localities government count on to keep the system operating.

“One thing that we know about it, it is a very inefficient way of collecting money, and it creates a lot of negative externalities, both for the people who owe the money and for everyone else, so for the entire state,” said Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed.

Making people who violated the law pay, not only for their crimes but also fees that keep the entire system operating has been in place for decades. And, if the legislation approved by lawmakers in 2023 is any indication, it will continue for the foreseeable future.

Paying for not showing up

Northport residents await their court appearances at the Northport Public Safety Building in Northport, Ala., on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Photo by Will McLelland/For Alabama Reflector)

The city of Northport this spring convinced its legislative delegation to allow it to assess a fee for people who miss court appearances or fail to comply with a judge’s order.

HB 275, sponsored by Rep. Ron Bolton, R-Northport, allows the city to charge a defendant up to $100, not including other court costs that a defendant may incur.

“That was at the request of the city of Northport,” Bolton said in a recent interview. “That came from the council there. That was on the list of priorities that they had for the legislature this past session.”

Northport is only one example in the ongoing saga of adding fees on top of fines to punish people for their wrongdoing.

In an analysis of bills passed this year, the Alabama Reflector identified at least 4 bills that either established fees for people who committed a criminal infraction or increased the fees that are already in place.

HB 275 creates a warrant recall fee for the city of Northport municipal court, allowing the city to charge $100 for people who have a failure to appear warrant to be recalled.
HB 359 imposes court costs for people in Baldwin County charged with a crime by $10.
HB 481 imposed court costs for residents living in Cullman County by different amounts, from $5-$100, depending on the severity of the offense.
HB 446 imposed additional court costs in Pike and Coffee counties. The fee for general violations is $450 while the fee for driving under the influence is $2,100.

“What we see are people, their families and their communities that are caught up in a cycle of debt that is endless. And where the creditor can incarcerate them if they fail to pay.”

– Leah Nelson, research director for Alabama Appleseed

While it was only these four bills the Reflector found, there were 20 more bills that, in some fashion, dealt with the criminal justice system, paving the way for even more fines and fees that people charged with crimes will have to pay.

The money from the $10 in court fees for Baldwin County will pay for a mental health diversion program that will be administered by the court and the district attorney’s office. The additional fees generated in Cullman County will fund a police officer specifically assigned to schools in Cullman County and the city of Cullman.

While a common practice, the charges often burden lower-income individuals and households.

People working their way through the criminal justice system are tracked — and a misstep can have severe consequences that extend their penalty or levy additional fees.

According to an Alabama Appleseed report published in October 2018, people are most likely to owe fines and fees to municipal courts. About 65% of those surveyed had fines and fees owed to municipal courts. Of those same respondents, 32% also had state court costs and restitution, and 40% also had probation supervision fees.

Most with court debt owed about $2,000 while the maximum amount was $250,000. The average amount of time that people remained in debt, according to those surveyed in the report, was about four and a half years.

“What we see are people, their families and their communities that are caught up in a cycle of debt that is endless,” Nelson said. “And where the creditor can incarcerate them if they fail to pay.”

There is a racial component to fines and fees in Alabama. While whites and Blacks may face similar consequences in terms of the debt they owe, Blacks are more likely to be caught in the criminal justice system. In 2015, Black Alabamians were four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, even though consumption of the drug is roughly equal between the groups.

But charging those least able to pay often means difficulty collecting the revenue. A report published in 2021 by the Fines and Fees Justice Center estimates that at least $27.6 billion has yet to be collected nationally. According to the report, the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts determined that the total amount of unpaid fines and fees for felony, misdemeanor, traffic and municipal violation cases from the late 1980s to October 2020 was at least $903.4 million. (The Alabama judicial system is slated to get $196.5 million from the General Fund budget next year.)

Fines and fees in the U.S.

States and local governments collected about $12.8 billion in criminal or civil penalties in 2021, according to a report published by the Urban Institute in 2022.

Fines and fees can create chaos for households, especially those living on the edge of financial ruin. The Fines and Fees Justice Center published a survey of 5,600 people in May of this year where about 2,007 people more than a third of the sample population, reported dealing with fines and fees in the last decade.

Many reported major impacts. About 35% of the respondents reported they experienced food insecurity because of fines and fees they owed. Of those, 65% reported fines and fees made it more difficult to buy enough food, and another 26% reported that food became inaccessible.

According to the Urban Institute report, about 0.4% of state and local revenues in Alabama come from fines and fees, placing it just outside the top 10 of states with the highest number of fines and fees as a percentage of general revenues.

Amy Kimpel, an associate professor of clinical legal instruction and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Alabama School of Law, practiced in San Diego. She said her clients paid less in terms of fines and fees when dealing with the federal court system versus what she finds in Alabama.

“Our clients regularly, in municipal and district court in Alabama, are assessed court costs that far exceed that $250,” said Kimpel, comparing the fees to federal court in San Diego. “Particularly if they are doing diversionary programs, which we often charge a pretty high premium for in this state.”

The bills

The 2023 session included four bills that specifically imposed additional fines and fees for infractions that people committed as part of the criminal justice system.

HB 446, sponsored by Rep. Rhett Marques, R-Enterprise, mandates that people in Coffee and Pike counties pay an additional application fee for entering pretrial diversion program that gives a person facing a criminal charge an opportunity to avoid jail time.

Prior to passage, felony offenders looking to enter the diversion program in the counties paid an $850 fee. The bill raised that to $2,000.

The legislation also established a $2,100 fee for people charged with driving under the influence to enter the program. Misdemeanor offenses, excluding traffic violations, went from $550 to $1,000. Fees for pretrial diversion for traffic offenses increased by almost 30%, going from $350 to $450.

Fees for other, unspecified violations increased by 80%, from $200 to $350.

Messages seeking comment from Marques were not returned.

The second bill, sponsored by Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Cullman, imposes 10 fees related to court for criminal infractions committed in Cullman County. The fees are a holdover from funding the DARE program. New legislation shifted the funding.

“The funding mechanism is already there,” Harbison said in a recent interview. “We took an old piece of legislation that had those fees in it. It specifically said funding the DARE program. I removed DARE and put in a school resource officer. There are not any new fees or anything.”

Harbison said the idea for this bill came from Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry. A message was left with Gentry seeking comment.

The most forgiving of the fees deal with traffic citations that don’t involve drugs or alcohol and misdemeanor arrests, both of which result in an additional $5 fee.

There is a fee when drivers are found driving under the influence that is a misdemeanor offense. That is $25. If a person is convicted of a misdemeanor for drugs, that is a $20 fee. The fees for felony drug arrests, felony alcohol arrests and felony DUI arrests are all $50.

All drug trafficking arrests involve $100 in court fees.

“I don’t even know enough about the fees to comment,” Harbison said of the fees. “Nobody has ever said anything about it. Nobody has ever complained about it.”

A third bill, HB 359, sponsored by Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, imposes court costs of $10 for people charged with criminal offenses.

These three bills are in addition to the bill in the city of Northport that imposes a $100 fee to have a warrant recalled for failing to appear in court.

While the three deal specifically with court costs, lawmakers passed other pieces of legislation related to the criminal justice system. The Alabama Reflector, when looking through all the legislation that passed, counted almost 20 other bills that introduced laws on the books related to criminal offenses, or enhanced penalties for infractions for violations that are already law.

Court costs

The fines are less of an issue when compared to the court costs. Judges have discretion over the fines, Kimpel said, but not so with the associated fees.

“Court costs are mostly determined by statute, and so the judge doesn’t have that much discretion over them,” Kimpel said. “They are imposed mechanically, but again, I don’t know how much discretion the judge has to give relief on that.”

Kimpel provided documents outlining some of the fees that people will pay based on her work at the clinic that listed the court costs codified in state statute. In the list of fees, there is barely a step in the court process that doesn’t include some type of financial penalty that will be imposed on the defendant.

If a juvenile must deal with the district or circuit court for any reason, the person must pay $85 that will be allocated to the state’s General Fund and then county general fund. A portion of the proceeds go to programs that have nothing to do with court or the case, such as the Advanced Technology and Data Exchange Fund and the Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Fund.

A traffic violation nets courts, state and local governments $92 while a misdemeanor charge will be $117. If a person wants to plead guilty to save on the trouble of continuing to proceed with court, then that person is charged $185 for pleading guilty to a felony.

If a person wants to continue with the proceedings, a preliminary hearing will be $30 while forfeiting bond is another $65. If a litigant wants to compel someone to testify and subpoena a witness, no problem, it will be $8 for every witness. Separate fees exist for drug charges.

There’s a $35 fee to apply for a bond. Then there will be a bail bond fee of about $100-$450 for a misdemeanor. If it is a felony, the fee is between $100-$750.

“We basically underfund the criminal courts, and so many different aspects of the government in Alabama, and we make defendants pay for all the components of the case processing,” Kimpel said.

People in the courtroom were aware of that fact even prior to the start of the proceedings at the Northport Municipal Court.

Court staff play a video from the only television monitor that faces litigants prior to the start of a trial. The roughly five-minute video explains what the defendants will face as court proceeds. In the video, Northport Municipal Court Judge Paul Patterson reviews court decorum, having people turn off their cell phones and instead meditate, focusing on their actions that led them being forced to appear in court in the first place.

He goes over the appeals process, but also walks them through the fines and fees. He explains the financial motivations for levying fees, which includes the Fair Trial Tax Fund that receives money from every criminal case in court, an account that provides people who cannot afford representation with an attorney.

“That is problematic, right?” Kimpel said. “We are making people who are unable to afford counsel pay court costs that include funding counsel for people who are too poor for people to afford counsel.”

‘That prevents people from coming’

As for the city of Northport, it managed to convince its legislative delegation to pass legislation that imposed a fee to rescind a warrant for failing to appear in court. That fee, mandated by state statute, is $100.

The defendant in a case must pay the fee whenever a warrant is issued for failing to appear in court after missing one hearing, though the judge or magistrate can recall it. Proceeds will be deposited into the city’s correction fund, but because the city does not operate its own jail and uses the county, proceeds from the fee will pay for any costs related to operating municipal court, according to Patterson.

“A lot of people would not come to court because they are in fear of a missed court date and they have a writ out for their arrest,” Patterson said. “A lot of times that prevents people from coming. The writ recall fee was designed so they can come if they want to settle up, and they can say, ‘I have a writ for my arrest, can I recall it for the payment of $100.’ It is recalled, and then they can resolve the matter or set a court date.”

J.R. Krebs, Northport’s municipal prosecutor, said the warrant recall fee assessment begins when a person violates a rule listed on the municipal code. If a person misses a first court appearance, they receive a failure to appear notice. If they miss a second, a judge can issue a warrant.

“It is just a way for those who have an outstanding warrant for failing to appear to get the warrant recalled without having to go to jail,” Krebs said of the warrant recall fee.

A person can go voluntarily to court before a police officer makes an arrest and pay the fee to avoid jail.

“If you don’t have the money to pay the recall fee, you would still show up to court,” Krebs said. “Likely we would put you on a payment plan along with your fines and other costs. The fee would not go away. It would just be figured in with the other fines and costs.”

While the direct consequence applies to an arrest, municipalities throughout the country use the same fee to make money. Administrative clerks, for example, can levy a fee each time such an incident happens. According to a report from the Fines and Fees Justice Center published in October 2022, 27 states permit local governments to collect fees like Northport’s.

The cost imposed on individuals varies, between $2 to $125. Alabama is one of six states where the fine is at least $100.

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Bolton, a retired captain of the Northport Police Department, argued that the fee could reduce the number of people who miss court appearances and the time needed to track them down.

“If you understand the process, and I worked in that process for many, many years, and went out and served those particular papers regularly, it is really more complex,” he said. “You have to go hunt people on papers and stuff like that. The officers are tied up, court officers are tied up, so I didn’t have any problem doing that.”

That request for a warrant recall fee was a request from Northport officials to its state delegation, according to a resolution that was approved by the city council back in February. But in separate interviews, Northport Mayor John Hinton said he didn’t know what the bill was, and Northport City Council President Jeff Hogg said he had “nothing to do with that.” Northport City Attorney Ron Davis directed questions to Patterson and Krebs.

“It was a collective idea when I first came in,” Patterson said. “I looked at it, and I looked at other municipal courts because we have so many people who, at times, have writs on them for failing to appear. Going to conferences and listening to what other municipal courts do to try and take that fear off of them.”

But Tim Curry, the policy and research director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, called the charge “pretty stupid” because of the already-high costs of going to court.   According to Northport’s website, running a red light is a $20 fine, but the cost for going to court is more than eight times that amount at $162.

Fines for administrative violations are even higher. Many of the infractions, Krebs said, involve suspended driver’s licenses. That is a $75 fine for driving without a license. The court cost for that is more than double at $162. Driving without insurance is a $100 fine, but another $162 in court fees.

Curry said adding another fee on top of all those only burdens those who cannot pay even more.

“It is funding related,” Curry said. “And then they are going to add another $100 on something that I could not pay the first time.”

Criminal justice reform experts have long criticized using fines and fees to fund local governments because they can be devastating to people barely making enough to survive, including people of color.

“The way we look at fees is that it is the most inequitable way to fund the government, because it is always going to be regressive on people who have less,” Curry said.

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According to the 2018 Alabama Appleseed report, 70% of those who had to pay fines and fees were declared indigent by a court. About 63% did not have a bank account. Another 54% were unemployed, according to the report.

Its impact can be devastating. About 83% went without basic needs as a tradeoff for making a payment. This includes necessities such as rent, food, medical bills and car payments. Another 50% said they had been jailed for failing to pay court debt.

“What we are doing is we are trying to balance budgets on the most unstable revenue stream possible,” Curry said. “We might say we can rely on these dollars, but can you really? No, because we cannot collect that. We can’t get blood from a stone.”

Mackenzie Smith was cited for speeding while driving a couple of months back, which would have resulted in more than $300 in fines and fees. She appeared in court to request to be put on a payment plan, but the judge opted to dismiss the charge provided she does not receive another citation for the next 6 months.

Others were not so fortunate and had to pay the fee. Joseph Willett was pulled over because he was driving with a sales tag on his car and, after the police officer investigated, was found to be driving with an expired tag. He was then ordered to court and showed up in August and paid $162 in court costs stemming from the infraction.

“It was very quiet there,” Willett said. “I was a little anxious.”

Michael Dunn was also in court to deal with traffic citations that included a failed seatbelt and driving without insurance. They later dismissed the fines and fees for the insurance after proving to the court that he had insurance. The infraction for the seat belt would cost him $26.

“I have been in here several times with speeding tickets, just other petty stuff,” Dunn said. “They got me for tag lights being out, just petty stuff.”

The prior month Dunn had to pay fines and fees after he was pulled over for driving 10 mph over the speed limit.

“The judge, I didn’t even get to talk to him because he had something to do later that day,” Dunn said. “So, I had to sit here for 30-45 minutes, and the next thing I know I ended up just talking to the clerk, and just having to pay close to $400.”

How we analyzed the bills

Analyzing the local government legislation that passed took weeks and began by reviewing the records the Alabama Reflector had compiled as bills moved through the legislature. Every week during the session, the Reflector published a summary of the legislation that both the House and Senate considered. The Reflector then used Alison, the state’s legislative website, to search for bills using different keywords related to taxation, fines, and fees.

Any legislation that collected any revenue or could be an additional expenditure was considered for review. Some dealt directly with generating revenues through local legislation through vehicle registration fees or dues related to filing documents with the court or serving papers.

Others were less direct and more distantly related, such as technical revisions that were made to a revenue source, or legislation with the potential for affecting expenses, such as increasing the number of days that the board of registrars meets, or consolidating voting centers to reduce cost.

Those bills were then compiled into a spreadsheet that outlined different features of the bills, from the bill number identifying the specific legislation and its sponsor, to the taxing authority and the agency receiving the funding. Specifics of the legislation were also included, such as the fee structure, its purpose and where the legislation ended during the legislative process.

At the end of the search, the Reflector aggregated almost 300 bills meeting those criteria. Of those, the Reflector focused on those that passed during the 2023 regular legislative session, and those bills that, in some fashion, affected the public by generating revenues or cost measures.

Legislation was then filtered even further, concentrating on those bills that generated fees at the state, county, or municipal level. In the end, the Reflector was left with more than 60 pieces of legislation to consider for its analysis.

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for the Alabama Reflector. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.

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