Fines and Fees Are a Barrier to Criminal Record-Clearing
Fines and Fees Are a Barrier to Criminal Record-Clearing which individuals seek to clear their records. To assist those impacted by the criminal justice system, states and cities can implement measures to eliminate the financial obstacles created by criminal fines, fees, and assessments. This proactive approach facilitates the reintegration of individuals with convictions into society
In the United States, one in three people has a criminal record. Over 44,000 legal, social and economic consequences apply to these people, making getting a job, education, housing, nutrition support, and many other essential resources difficult or impossible to obtain and keep. The criminal justice system’s deeply ingrained discriminatory policies and practices, which disproportionately impact people of color, LGBTQ individuals, and those with disabilities, among other vulnerable groups, exacerbate systemic injustices and poverty cycles, stigmatize and exclude those with criminal records, and obstruct community integration.
Addressing this major barrier to justice, as well as drastically restricting the role of penalties and fees, is critical to developing a real road to criminal record-clearing. Essential actions to overcome these barriers consist of:
- Reducing or doing away with court fines and fees;
- Endorsing systems that promote transparency regarding the application of fines and fees;
- Allowing cases involving unpaid monetary damages to be expunged regardless of the money owed.
This issue brief examines the significant barriers and challenges that people attempting to expunge their criminal records encounter due to fines and fees and emphasizes the significance of putting policies in place to remove them.
What is criminal justice record-clearing?
Criminal justice record-clearing, often called “expungement” or “record sealing” in Nevada, is a legal process that allows individuals with certain criminal records to be either erased or restricted from public view. Record-clearing aims to give individuals who have made mistakes in the past a chance to move forward without the burden of a criminal record affecting their opportunities for employment, housing, education, and other aspects of life. The theory behind record sealing is that the individual has paid his debt to society.
The specific process and eligibility criteria for record-clearing can vary significantly depending on jurisdiction and the nature of the offense. Generally, minor offenses or those committed by juveniles are more likely to be eligible for expungement. However, serious offenses, violent crimes, or repeated convictions might not be eligible for record-clearing.
Record-clearing can offer individuals a fresh start by removing the stigma of a criminal record. However, it is important to note that even with record-clearing, there are situations where certain entities, such as law enforcement, may still have access to sealed records. Additionally, not all jurisdictions provide the same opportunities for record-clearing, and the process can be complex and require legal assistance.
If you are considering pursuing record sealing, it is advisable to consult with a legal professional who specializes in criminal law in your jurisdiction. They can guide you on whether you are eligible for record-clearing and how to navigate the process. In Nevada, if a mistake is made in your application, the law mandates that you wait another year before you re-apply. This is a significant amount of time if you are waiting for your record to be sealed to gain employment.
The record clearance process
Pardons, expungement, and exoneration are ways criminal records may be hidden from the public or erased. Nevertheless, navigating these routes to record clearance is renowned for being challenging. Because of this, only roughly 7% of criminal record holders qualified for expungement get their records erased in the allotted five years. Process barriers, including inaccessible filing systems and inadequate legal representation, are enforced by the criminal justice system, alongside material barriers like difficulty finding child care, expensive filing fees, and transportation to mandatory court appearances.
Fines and fees may be the primary cause of the shockingly low record clearance numbers in the United States. As a component of a court’s sentencing, fines complement other criminal sanctions by acting as a punitive or deterrent. Defendants are typically compelled to “reimburse” the state for various expenses such as electronic monitoring, court-ordered drug tests, public lawyers, etc. Fees, however, are primarily meant to generate money for the state. Those who are paying court debt do not care about the differences between the various categories of debt. The Fines and Fees Justice Center estimated that current court debt is over $27 billion nationwide. The actual amount of criminal justice debt and the number of individuals impacted is unclear.
Another type of monetary sanction meant to make up for the harm caused to victims of crime is restitution. The federal government projects that over 90% of the restitution owed to crime survivors will not be collected since it is collected at a meager rate. Furthermore, survivors frequently aren’t eligible to receive restitution money if they have a criminal record.
Most reparations are not due to the victims of crimes but rather to insurance companies. Private companies can effectively use the criminal justice system as a collection agency against low-income people who are disproportionately black and brown and who are found guilty of crimes.
If someone cannot afford the fines or fees assessed, courts sometimes refuse them the chance to seal or delete their records. People affected by the system are left to fight the stigma associated with their records while trying to create a successful future because they cannot seal or expunge their records.
Unpaid financial penalties frequently result in extended probationary periods, delaying the closing of a person’s case and, consequently, the date on which they become eligible for expungement. Unpaid fines and fees are recognized as grounds for probation violations and jail in many states, which can add a new charge and arrest to a person’s record. Ultimately, these obstacles may lead to recidivism or an ongoing cycle of hardship and poverty, especially for marginalized groups.
Although plenty of research suggests that monetary sanctions hinder rehabilitation and integration into the community, less evidence supports the idea that they enhance public safety. Studies reveal that police within jurisdictions where a more significant portion of their income comes from fines and fees are less likely to resolve major crimes because they are compelled to spend time collecting debts.
How does the criminal justice system disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color?
The criminal justice system in many countries has been widely criticized for its disproportionate impact on low-income individuals and people of color. This disparity arises from a complex interplay of factors contributing to unequal treatment and outcomes within the system, driven by race, class, and discrimination issues.
Some of the key ways in which the criminal justice system disproportionately affects these communities include:
- Policing Practices: Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color often face more intense and aggressive policing due to racial stereotypes and biases. That can lead to higher rates of arrests and interactions with law enforcement, resulting in a higher likelihood of being caught up in the criminal justice system.
- Racial Profiling: People of color are more likely to be racially profiled by law enforcement, leading to unjustified stops, searches, and arrests. It infringes on their civil rights and increases the chances of becoming entangled in the criminal justice system, further fueled by discriminatory attitudes.
- Bail and Pretrial Detention: Low-income individuals often struggle to afford bail, leading to pretrial detention that disproportionately affects communities of color. That can result in loss of employment and housing and disruption of family life, perpetuating cycles of poverty and discrimination.
- Sentencing Disparities: People of color, especially Black individuals, often receive harsher sentences for the same crimes as their white counterparts. That is due to factors such as implicit biases, racial stereotypes, and the application of mandatory minimum sentences, reflecting the systemic racism entrenched in the criminal justice system.
- Mass Incarceration: Mass incarceration policies, such as three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, have disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income individuals. These policies perpetuate cycles of poverty, discrimination, and unequal access to resources.
Addressing these disparities requires comprehensive reforms across various levels of the criminal justice system, including changes in policing practices, sentencing guidelines, bail reform, and improved access to legal representation.
Additionally, societal efforts are needed to challenge systemic racism and inequality that contribute to these disparities based on race, class, and discrimination.
A criminal record has collateral consequences that impact several aspects of an individual’s life. Criminal background checks are used by 3 out of 5 colleges and universities, 4 out of 5 landlords, and 9 out of 10 employers. Millions of people cannot access the resources and pathways required to support stability for themselves alongside their families because of these restrictive barriers, which are present in various sectors.
- Housing: There are over 1,300 housing barriers in place in various states and on the federal level that limit people’s ability to get public housing, student housing, rental housing, and homeownership. These include the refusal to pay rent or sell a house, the denial of safeguards provided by the Constitution for fair housing laws, and even the forfeiture or eviction of homes.
- Job access: Employers legally, but frequently unfairly, use the results of criminal background checks to deny applicants based on their criminal history rather than considering their qualifications or suitability for the job at hand. Furthermore, many criminal convictions prevent an individual from getting various occupational licenses, which keeps millions of people out of the job market.
- Education: Disclosure of criminal history is a requirement for thousands of U.S. schools and universities throughout the admission process. This hurdle keeps a lot of people from going to higher education. Another barrier to obtaining essential government financing concerns applicants’ past drug conviction history on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
- Safety net program eligibility: Food insecurity and challenges for entire families result when individuals with felony drug charges navigate legal barriers to public assistance and safety net programs. Examples of these barriers include lifetime bans on TANF and SNAP, which provide a lifetime of benefits for those in need.
- Civic participation and voting rights: The country’s felony disenfranchisement rate is estimated to be 5.2 million, meaning that individuals with criminal records have lost their ability to vote in elections, including the most recent U.S. presidential election. Furthermore, it is prohibited for someone with a particular record to seek or hold public office, as well as to serve on a jury.
How are records cleared?
The following excerpt is from CAP’s “Expunging and Sealing Criminal Records: How Jurisdictions Can Expand Access to Second Chances” fact sheet.
An expungement erases arrests and/or convictions from a person’s criminal history, making them appear to have never occurred. A person’s expunged record is not viewable by a court or prosecutor. On the other hand, sealing conceals their criminal record from the general public, though a court order can still access it.
For certain kinds of records, most states offer some sealing or expungement. However, there is no formal procedure at the federal level for expunging federal convictions and non-conviction records. To have their record sealed or expunged, a person usually needs to file a petition, appear in court, and fulfill a waiting period during which they cannot commit another crime. Many people qualified to have their criminal records sealed or expunged are discouraged because doing so can result in hundreds of dollars in legal and administrative fees. Furthermore, many qualified people might need to know these procedures are available.
Impact of Fines and Fees on Criminal Record-Clearing
The issue of fines and fees in the criminal justice system has garnered increasing attention in recent years due to its multifaceted implications. One critical aspect is its impact on the ability of individuals to clear their criminal records.
Criminal record-clearing enables individuals to reintegrate into society, secure stable employment, and lead productive lives. However, fines and fees can create significant barriers to this process, exacerbating poverty and recidivism.
Barriers to Record-Clearing
- Financial Burden: Fines and fees associated with criminal convictions can create substantial financial burdens for individuals, especially those from low-income backgrounds. These financial obligations include court costs, restitution, and administrative fees. As a result, individuals with criminal records may find it nearly impossible to pay off these debts, hindering their ability to pursue record-clearing processes.
- Legal Complexity: Clearing a criminal record can be legally intricate and time-consuming. Fines and fees further complicate this process, as individuals often need to navigate a complex web of regulations and paperwork, potentially requiring legal assistance. These challenges can discourage individuals from pursuing record-clearing, especially when they lack the resources to navigate the legal system effectively.
- Limited Access to Resources: Individuals with criminal records, especially those with financial constraints, might lack access to legal aid, counseling, and support networks. This lack of access can hinder their understanding of their legal rights and options for record-clearing, perpetuating their disadvantaged position.
Impact on Reintegration
- Employment Opportunities: Clearing a criminal record significantly enhances an individual’s chances of securing stable employment. Fines and fees can impede this process, as many employers conduct background checks and view outstanding financial obligations as red flags. This barrier prevents individuals from breaking the cycle of unemployment and poverty, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.
- Housing Stability: Similar to employment, housing opportunities can be limited for individuals with criminal records. Fines and fees compound this challenge, as housing providers might hesitate to lease to individuals with outstanding debts. This lack of stable housing can further contribute to recidivism rates.
- Economic Impact: The economic burden of fines and fees extends beyond individuals to their families and communities. Families of individuals with criminal records often bear the brunt of these financial obligations, perpetuating intergenerational poverty and limiting opportunities for advancement.
Recommendations For Removing And Reducing Barriers
Comprehensive action must be taken to stop criminalization, reduce harm to the one in three Americans with a record, and assist the millions of communities and families impacted by the system’s unintended consequences. State and local governments must put the following policies into place to alleviate the adverse effects of fines and fees and stop monetary sanctions from impeding record clearance:
- Reduce or do away with fines imposed as a form of punishment: Although millions of people are in debt due to these fines, there is no proof that they increase public safety.
- Eliminate fees only applied to generate money: These costs hurt people individually and as a family, drawing them further into the criminal justice system and poverty. Furthermore, because the expense of collections is high, they frequently result in barely any net revenue and have been demonstrated to prevent police from investigating serious crimes.
- Reform restitution so that the goal is to make amends for harm caused rather than to perpetuate cycles of hurt, poverty, and criminality: Restitution to companies and government institutions should be eliminated, and restitution interest should be reduced or eliminated.
- Require public reporting for fines and fees data: It would be more transparent how much debt the United States has related to the criminal justice system if this information was made available to the general public.
- Automate criminal record-clearing with clean slate laws: After a particular period, such activities would automatically expunge certain misdemeanor and criminal records without needing a judicial petition process or payment requirements.
- Separate the eligibility for sealing and expungement from any court debt: This would permit expungement if the parties have satisfied further legal criteria, regardless of unpaid fines, fees, or restitution.
- Removing other criminal record-clearing barriers: fingerprinting requirements, expungement fees, required or discretionary hearings without sufficient notice, and rigorous filing processes, including in-person filing requirements or expensive online filing, are some examples of these obstacles.
To remove the barriers to criminal record cleaning, fines and fees and their negative consequences must be eliminated. At the same time, the criminal justice system needs to stop mass incarceration and hypercriminalization, eliminate the negative effects of possessing a criminal record, and make major investments in vital community services. These actions can greatly increase a person’s prospects of a successful transition back into society and avoid the negative consequences of having a criminal record.
It’s time for localities and states to acknowledge the negative effects of monetary sanctions and begin working toward comprehensive policies that aim to end or drastically reduce the utilization of court fines and fees, eliminate the repercussions of criminal records, and promote openness and knowledge of the detrimental effects which monetary sanctions may have on communities affected by the system.
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