Court Penalties

Regardless of defendants’ guilt or innocence on the charges against them, routine court cases can unexpectedly lead to added charges, fines and even jail time. The penalties arise when alleged offenders miss appointments or are unable to pay fines and fees. The underlying policies are meant to promote the orderly functioning of criminal courts that are frequently understaffed and overwhelmed with crowded dockets. But instead of making the criminal justice system more efficient, these penalties often simply add to the number of low-risk individuals who jam the system and face pretrial detention that is costly both to them and to taxpayers. The most vulnerable to these penalties are the poor, people unfamiliar with the workings of the American judicial system and those making do without legal representation. All of those conditions apply disproportionately to Latinos and immigrants. 

Reforming bench warrants 

When defendants fail to appear in court or pay necessary fines on time, even for a minor traffic infraction, they are often issued a bench warrant. Across the country every year, this practice leads to thousands of arrests of individuals originally charged with minor infractions. Meanwhile, unpaid fines and fees lead to additional fines, and the amounts due compound relentlessly. 

Negative consequences cascade particularly for low-income individuals who do not have the means to pay and for those who simply do not realize they are out of compliance. A recent study of the policing of homeless people in Los Angeles found that failure to appear was by far the most common charge, accounting for 22 percent of all arrests — more than twice the share of possession of controlled substances and three times that of trespassing.

Many cities and states have taken important steps toward addressing these issues. 


The Center for Popular Democracy’s Building Momentum from the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing” includes a section on Municipal Court Reforms with examples and best practices. Some suggestions include creating regular times when people can appear in court to accommodate work schedules and eliminating the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay fines or child support.


In Georgia, legislation enacted in 2017 provided more leeway for those who fail to appear in court for nonserious traffic violations by sending a notification in the mail and allowing “the accused 30 days from such date to dispose of his or her charges or waive arraignment and plead not guilty.” This bill was one of many criminal justice reforms taken on by the state, which reduced the overall prison population by 15.4 percent from 2009 to 2016. 

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Like many cities, Baton Rouge has held periodic opportunities for its residents to clear their bench warrants. In December 2015, the city held an “amnesty day” for traffic-related bench warrants to help resolve 160,000 outstanding warrants — 60 percent of which were traffic related. This number is quite striking, considering the city’s overall population was 227,715 in July 2016

“Becoming a Culturally Competent Court”
Maricopa County, AZ and Imperial County, CA
A seven-step plan


In California, a bill working its way through the legislature,  SB 185, would overhaul how courts process traffic citations by dramatically lowering fines for low-income defendants; reducing the penalty for failure to appear or pay from a misdemeanor to an infraction; removing the requirement of driver’s license suspension for failure to appear in court; requiring multiple reminders from the courts; and eliminating bench warrants for failure to appear for traffic citations). 

National Center for State Courts Data Visualization
Fines, Fees & Bail
Practices State-by-state

Fines and fees

Fines and fees imposed with no consideration for an individual’s ability to pay inevitably burden people of modest means. When high dollar amounts compound because of an inability to pay, the result can be jail time. And it is imposed not because someone is a threat to public safety or a flight risk or even because he or she has committed a serious crime. Rather, fees and fines in the criminal justice system can serve as a form of punishment directed at people solely because they are poor. This practice is all the more problematic when it is pursued by local governments as a means of raising revenue.  

Ferguson, Missouri

A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and municipal courts after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown put the issue of court fees on the national agenda. The DOJ report discovered a strategy of generating revenue from court appearances that exacted a disproportionate burden on African-Americans — who make up 67 percent of the city’s population but 93 percent of those arrested. The report noted that in 2013, the city of about 21,000 residents issued 9,000 warrants, most of which stemmed from minor infractions. Fees and fines imposed on people with no ability to pay led to bench warrants for failure to comply and then additional fines in an escalating spiral. In response to the DOJ investigation and mounting national pressure, the City of Ferguson passed an ordinance capping earnings from citations at 15 percent of budgeted revenue and directed surplus revenue to special community projects rather than the city’s general fund. The city also eliminated many additional court charges and opened a warrant recall from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, 2014.

The Department of Justice report highlighted the story of an African-American woman who was issued a $151 ticket for illegal parking in 2007. The woman was experiencing financial and housing instability, and from 2007 to 2010 she was issued seven failure-to-appear offenses for not paying the ticket or appearing in court, which led to more fines and bench warrants. From 2007 to 2014, she was arrested twice, spent six days in jail and paid $550 toward the ticket. The DOJ notes that attempted payments of $25 and $50 were denied, and she was told she had to pay the balance in full. Despite having already paid $550, she still owed $541 for the ticket in December 2014.

Had Ferguson not been the subject of international attention, it is likely that these practices would have gone on. Undoubtedly many other municipalities across the country continue similar policies and practices. Nevertheless, some policymakers have recognized the negative consequences of unaffordable fines and fees, and have moved to address them.


In 2015, California launched an amnesty program that made at least 3.3 million traffic tickets eligible for cost reductions. More than 58,000 people took advantage in the first three months of the 18-month program. From 2006 to 2013, some 4.2 million people in California had their driver’s licenses suspended for failing to pay a traffic ticket or associated penalties. In the following two years, 35,000 people were arrested by the San Francisco and Los Angeles sheriffs’ departments for not paying traffic-related fees or driving with a suspended license, of which a disproportionate portion were Latino. 

Madison, Wisconsin

Time banking is a creative alternative to monetary payment for those who can’t afford it, by using the exchange of time and skills as currency. The Dane County TimeBank in Madison gives youth the ability to timebank hours for certain infractions, using a restorative justice model. Madison recently launched a unique program that allows homeless individuals to clear citation fees through time banking.

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