One Ticket, Vastly Different Results: Fines and Fees’ Effect on Low-Income Women

There’s a story going around online where a Rich Guy assures his employee that he can park in a restricted parking spot; it might just be a little more expensive. The same thing goes for driving over the speed limit, public intoxication, jaywalking—any number of misdemeanors. You can do it; you just might have to pay a little more for it. For Rich Guy, a $25 parking ticket or even a fine of a few hundred dollars is a slap on the wrist. For a mother making the minimum wage, however, an unexpected fine or fee may empty her bank account. One restricted parking spot, one fine, but two dramatically different results.

Fines and fees imposed by the criminal justice system at different levels of municipal, state or local government may include anything from a parking ticket, to compounding fines, to payment for a family member or friend who is incarcerated. The impacts of fines and fees are widespread. According to Georgetown Law professor and renowned poverty lawyer Peter Edelman, 10 million Americans owe federal, state, and local government $50 billion in accumulated fines and fees. Women of color in particular often suffer the fall out of these unexpected fines and fees. One survey of women of color found that 22% of the women with incomes below $15,000 per year had a past due parking ticket. Now of course, fines and fees are just one element of a skewed economy in which almost 50% of people do not have enough savings to cover an emergency expense of $400, but fines and fees can have a disastrous impact on a person’s economic stability.
Not only might the same $150 ticket have a dramatically different effect on people, depending on their income level and wealth, but the likelihood that someone will receive that ticket in the first place differs greatly by race. People of color are disproportionately targeted by police and are therefore more likely to face a related fine or fee from the criminal justice system. One report found not only that ½ of black women have a family member in prison, but that 85% of the family members who bear the primary financial burden of incarceration are women. Fines and fees are thus not only having a disparate impact, they are disparately applied: If we assume Rich Guy is white, not only is he better able to weather a $150 ticket, but he might not even receive one in the first place.
While this administration just announced that the War on Poverty is “largely over,” hopefully, you are not surprised to learn that I disagree. In fact, I think the current administration is acting in a way that increases poverty and decreases economic stability, especially when it comes to fines and fees. For example, the President signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December 2017, which (among many bad things) limited the ability to deduct state and local taxes from federal taxable income. This will likely make it even harder for cash-strapped municipal, state, and local governments to raise revenue – and make fines and fees an increasingly important source of supplemental revenue.
Fortunately, there are solutions. One solution would be to implement a sliding scale based on income, for paying fines and fees.  Smaller fixes could include creating payment plans to help people avoid falling further into debt. And of course, systemic changes like reinstating SALT deductions and encouraging state and local governments to raise revenue through income and property taxes would go a long way towards disincentivizing local governments from slapping more fines and fees on their residents. We have the power to change a system where a low-income mom may lose all her savings because of a parking ticket.