In April 2017, the Legal Design Lab will be hosting a three-day sprint to create new pilot projects that will make the legal system more empowering, fair, and accessible.
Court fines and fees can have devastating effects on people — with small infractions or obligations spiraling into escalating debt, imprisonment, lost jobs, lost housing, and cycles of poverty.
Especially after the Department of Justice’s report on the local court’s practices in Ferguson, Missouri, which exposed their use of fines and fees to raise revenue at the expense of poor, minority community members, there has been growing pressure to change the system.
How do we make courts more fair, accessible, and empowering for people — especially when it comes to fines, fees, and bail?
Help us tackle 3 specific challenges, to create new prototypes to be piloted:
Empowering Individuals: How can we help defendants who don’t have a lawyer better know and use their rights?
Improving the Fairness of Courts: What kind of tool can we build for courts so they can more accurately, fairly determine if (and how much) people can pay when it comes to traffic fines?
Building a Holistic Service Network: How can we connect civil legal aid groups with criminal justice groups (and more) to create a network of support for individuals who are facing problems in multiple systems at the same time?
See our report from Sprint 1 here, that documents our process and prototypes.
We are running the sprint in collaboration with various legal partners, including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), and the California Judicial Council.
Each of these groups have worked on analyzing how the money involved in people’s journey through the justice system — particularly regarding court fines, fees, and bail — have serious repercussions on the quality of justice people receive.
What we’ll do during the sprint
Building from these group’s observations and proposals, participants in the sprint will identify opportunities for making the justice system fairer and more user-friendly to those who use it, around fines, fees, and bail.
We work in small groups to scope and build new initiatives, that could then be piloted by our partners or others in the justice system. Each group began with a challenge brief that we have defined based on the highest needs and biggest opportunities. Read our report of this first sprint.
Thurs. April 27, 5:30-7:30 (at dschool: Intros, Overview of Partners’ suggested design briefs, Review of current proposals, Team Formation)
Fri. April 28, 9:30am – 2pm (field trip on site in courts in Oakland: Research, Observe, Interview, Scout)
Sat., April 29, 11am-4pm (Synthesis and Prototyping lab at dschool)
Then, in May we will have a second sprint that will focus on testing, refinement, and final proposals back to our partners.
Our work will focus on three challenges — one centered on empowering people directly with rights and strategies, another on making courts more fair and efficient when assessing people’s ability to pay fines, and third about coordinating providers’ ability to serve people.
Challenge 1: Empowerment of People in the System
How do we help a person who is facing a misdemeanor or ticket (like a traffic ticket), but doesn’t automatically have a free lawyer (because they aren’t facing jail time), to better protect their own rights when dealing with the court?
This challenge grows out of the problem defendants have in protecting their own rights when representing themselves. They don’t know how to invoke their right to a hearing, in order to get their situation reviewed by a judge. They don’t know that they could possibly get a free lawyer to represent them, especially when they face punishment or loss of liberty because of outstanding fines.
We will design new ways to make individuals who are unrepresented to be strategic, aware, and empowered.
- The Department of Justice report that documents their investigation into how local municipal courts use fines and fees to build revenue rather than for public safety, with disproportionate impact on poor people and African-Americans.
- The DOJ “Dear Colleague” letter that explains to courts what practices they should be following regarding fines and fees, to better comply with due process, equal protection, and sound public policy
Challenge 2: Smarter Assessments by the Court
How do we help courts make more efficient and fair assessments of people’s ability to pay fines in cases like traffic tickets, so that they do not overburden people with debt, interest, and imprisonment?
Currently, most courts do not take into account an individuals’ circumstances when assessing fines — and this can have a destructive impact on low-income people. When a person gets a traffic ticket and has to pay money to the courts to resolve it, how can we help the judge and the court make a better determination of whether the person can truly pay it?
If we had a smarter tool to judge whether a person is able to pay traffic tickets, we might be able to stop these initial fines from compounding into larger debts and other penalties.
Here are some possible resources:
- Hackathon projects from the NCSC’s CourtHack that propose solutions to the ability-to-pay problem
- The Price of Justice grants, distributed by the DOJ, that is supporting five projects across the states to improve courts’ practices regarding fines and fees, in California, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri, and Washington State
- The Judicial Council report on rule 4.335, and Calfornia rules of court that change how fines and fees are treated (Rule 4.106 on ability to modify payments for failures to appear/pay)
- The Matterhorn Online Case Resolution system in Michigan by Court Innovations.
- The DOJ press release about Washington State’s grant for building an ability-to-pay calculator and payment scheduler tool as part of the Price of Justice grant
- Ability to Pay Checklists and screeners from Michigan’s Ability to Pay working group, along with “Means Tests” to calculate a person’s ability to pay; and Payment Plan Calculators
- The National Center for State Courts has CourTools to have courts evaluate their own practices, including Legal Financial Obligations: Court Practices Survey, the Management of Legal Financial Obligations, and Ensuring Fairness in LFOs
Challenge 3: Holistic System Support
How do we connect defense organizations with civil legal aid organizations, to help people overcome procedural barriers and provide holistic support to clients that cross criminal/civil lines?
The legal (and legal aid) systems are divided along this split between civil and criminal law, but people’s lives are not. A person’s civil legal problems can spiral into criminal legal ones (with unpaid fines in some cases leading to imprisonment or other criminal punishments). In many other cases, people are dealing simultaneously with issues in civil and criminal courts, but they don’t have services that help them deal with the issues holistically.
In this ambitious, systems-level challenge, we will design an intervention that could improve the ability of providers to work across these arbitrary divisions and provide more coordinated, intelligent support to people who are in the legal system.
- a Webinar from NLADA that explains how fines and fees are used inequitably, and what strategies legal aid groups can use to protect people.
Watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight report on how municipalities’ court fines and fees for small infractions (like traffic tickets or petty crimes) spiral into debt, loss of driver’s license, loss of cars and homes, and imprisonment
From the court’s perspective, there is a 2017 presentation from NACM (the National Center for Court Management) that summarizes the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail
- A proposed bill in Massachusetts that would allow defendants who can’t pay court fees to do community service instead
- A proposed measure in Mississippi that would get rid of ‘debtors prisons’, where communities put in jail people who can’t afford to pay misdemeanor fines like traffic tickets
- The fight in Maryland over a pro-bail bill, that would have reestablished the option for judges to set bail even for poor defendants
- A study in New Orleans that shows effect of bail, fines and fees on low-income residents
- Proposed legislation in Illinois that would overhaul criminal court fees, standardizing fees across the states and to reduce the amount people are expected to pay
- An op-ed about proposed changes in California about taking away driver’s licenses as a penalty for Failure to Appear in Traffic court, or Failure to Pay traffic tickets
- A related article by EBCLC staff in the Orange County Register, “Traffic amnesty program highlights the problem of temporary solutions to systemic poverty and racial bias”
- The DOJ’s OJP Diagnostic Center has published a Resource Guide: Reforming the Assessment and Enforcement of Fines and Fees. It includes links to an array of backgrounders that provide summaries of issues; case studies; issue studies; reform guidance; and reform tools.
- Best Practice Recommendations for Missouri Municipal Courts, from the NCSC and State Justice Institute, November 2015, that recommends that municipal courts not be revenue generators, and that bail not be used to enrich municipal treasuries. It also says that community service opportunities should be recommended in lieu of fines
- Michigan’s ability to pay workgroup has published possible statutory amendments to be made to local law to improve the situation regarding fines and fees; as well as court rule amendments to be made
The National Center for State Courts has an interactive visual to let you explore states’ different practices on fines, fees, and bail
Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program has a Reform Builder tool that provides analytics on states and laws, to consider policy alternatives and see what the status quo is
Stopped, Fined, and Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California, an April 2016 report from the EBCLC about the racial injustices that accompany traffic stops and tickets.
The ACLU has a 2010 report on the imprisonment of people for failing to pay legal debts, called In for a Penny: the Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, with particular focus on Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington State
The EBCLC has a side-by-side map that shows how many driver’s licenses have been suspended, as compared to the poverty rate in that area — to show the link between suspensions and poverty
The Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail has collected international reports, from the UK, Australia, Scotland, and elsewhere to profile how other countries deal with fines, fees, and bail
Resources around Bail and Pretrial Release
Though we won’t take bail as one of the central issues of our sprint, there are many inter-related issues with bail and court fines and fees.
The Vera Institute of Justice presents a short video explanation of how the bail system and the fines and fees associated with it have major justice implications, especially for poor, black people
The Arnold Foundation has supported a Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool, the Public Safety Assessment to help judges assess a person’s likelihood of committing another crime or failing to appear at court, through the use of predictive data
The Pretrial Justice Institute has an initiative, Smart Pretrial, to assess the risk of pretrial release, collect best practices, and provide training and tech assistance to those interested in making better assessments.
KQED has reports on proposals to limit cash bail in California, to stop punishing poor people for being poor.
Human Rights Watch report, “Not Im It for the Justice” identifies the problems with California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System, and the injustices it has on poor people who plead guilty to avoid detention.
See a video spotlighting some of the findings from the report:
Who are the key actors involved?
The federal Department of Justice, which has a suite of resources, guides, and grants to support the reform of local fines and fees practices
National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Vera Institute for Justice
East Bay Community Law Center
Conference of Chief Justices
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, has a Criminal Justice Debt program that looks into how to address injustices regarding criminal justices fines and fees
Laura and John Arnold Foundation has been providing grant support for initiatives in this area
State Justice Institute also provides grants in this area
The Council of State Governments Justice Center has resources on Legal Financial Obligations, and a Repaying Debts guide
What will we build?
We will not specify the exact thing to be built during our sprint, though our partners and research will point to specific ideas that could be built out.
We also encourage a mix of projects that will focus on front-end experiences of litigants and defendants, as well as back-end, systems level changes.