A Costly Convenience: Fees for Court Cost Installment Payments

By: Roylee Brown

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

Arkansas imposes fees on top of fines for people who can’t afford to pay the fine in the first place. The fees are the cost of the “convenience” of making installment payments instead of, as the law requires, paying the total fine immediately. Separate fines are subject to different fees. But on an installment plan, all the debt is lumped together and paid off in order of priority: court costs, restitution, and finally, fines. To illustrate: first, court costs are paid along with the accompanying payment fees for restitution and fines. After that, restitution is paid along with the restitution payment fee and the fine payment fee. The last to be paid are the fines along with the fine payment fee. The fee for paying the fine has been paid month by month while the fine itself has been waiting its turn. It may be expected that the fees paid so far total more than the original fine. This makes the fee for court cost installment payments the most lucrative part of imposing fines.

But this source of state income comes at a terrible price. Once a person is in the payment system, incarceration is practically a given. Missing a hearing date results in an arrest warrant. Missing a payment entitles the state to revoke the driver’s license and automobile registration. This is a death knoll for employment, the only legal way to repay the debt. It causes a chain reaction that ends in the loss of home and family.

Arkansas recognizes that unwillingness to pay is different than inability to pay. The State invokes a noble standard, at least on paper. The law deems an individual able to pay if after doing so, there will be enough money left over to provide “a reasonable subsistence compatible with health and decency.” But it should be self-evident that the individual is already not meeting that standard if he or she has reached a point where they are required to appear in court on account of not being able to make payments. In contrast, Arkansans who do enjoy a reasonable subsistence compatible with health and decency can just pay the fine all at once and be done with it.

The payment fee is a political “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scheme that actually perpetuates the spiral of poverty and criminality to the detriment of both the individual and the state. Arkansas would be better off investing in its citizens by putting money into education and health care.

Arkansas is beginning to think about that. The Task Force on Offender Costs and Collections has identified the automation fee, the fee charged for making installment payments to the court, as “most in need of urgent action.”  Accordingly, a bill has been introduced that would eliminate the fee for installment payments.

The bill would amend A.C.A. §16-13-704 governing installment payments for fines. The statute, as it stands today, requires $10 for every month a fine payment is due. The money goes to the state Judicial Fine Collection Enhancement Fund to pay for computer hardware and software, and to the local courts for court-related technology. A portion goes to the State Administration of Justice Fund where it contributes to, among other things, retirement funds for law enforcement officers and judges. This gives law enforcement personnel a personal stake in perpetuating the fees – but that’s another story.

The bill is straightforward. It calls for the state to simply eliminate the fees attached to installment payments. Do it now! These fees are neither a punishment nor a deterrent for crime. Instead, they criminalize poverty.

The bill further calls for our state to fund the courts with a revenue source other than people who need a payment plan. Other states are turning to alternative sources of court funding, and the change is proving to be easier on both the pocketbook and on humanity.

But so far, the amendment has yet to reach the floor.

The argument is that people who use the justice system should have to pay for the justice system. The better argument is that people who want to be safe from crime should spend money on things that actually reduce crime instead of wasting money on strategies that only sound good politically while actually increasing crime and contributing to social costs.

For example, better education is closely correlated with less crime. Yet this year, Arkansas has taken money from public schools while at the same time committing to build new prisons.

The fee for court installment payments knocks people off their feet and keeps them down. It harms the people in debt and it harms everyone else. Ending it is the right thing to do financially and socially. It’s not the only thing to do, but it’s the easiest thing to do right now that will have the greatest benefit.

Eliminate the fees for court installment payments.

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