Fines, fees and mandatory surcharges can turn even a minor parking or traffic ticket into a costly affair that can quickly spiral out of control.
A story in Sunday's Star Tribune by Jessie Van Berkel details how a $30 ticket for expired license tabs can quickly mushroom to $130, thanks to a hefty "state surcharge" that eclipses the cost of the ticket itself, along with a $15 fee charged in some areas to support law libraries. And that is if the fines are paid on time. Delay adds late fees.
Make no mistake, laws should be enforced, with reasonable penalties that cover costs to the system and serve as an incentive to observe them in the first place. But a just system requires proportionality. To levy $90 of charges on top of a $30 ticket is not reasonable. To allow it to reach the level of license suspension, cascading charges and arrest warrants is unconscionable.
The charges are largely budget-driven, Scott Williams, deputy manager of safety and justice for Ramsey County, told Van Berkel. "It's just an ongoing pattern where, 'Oh, we have a tough budget year — we have a number of tough budget years — we have a budget hole to fill. How do we fill this? Well, we can add some fees,' " Williams said. "That results in this cumulative impact on individuals trying to get on with their lives."
Data from the State Court Administrator's office show that state and local governments collected more than $91 million in fines, fees, surcharges for criminal and traffic cases in 2020, and millions more went unpaid, Van Berkel reported.
State Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who leads the House committee on public safety and criminal justice, calls it "criminalizing poverty." Mariani told an editorial writer that there are proposals with bipartisan support in the Legislature and among civil rights groups that would mitigate the worst impacts. One would ban license suspension for missed payments on minor infractions or for failure to show up in court.
"You don't need to suspend licenses for failure to pay low misdemeanor traffic fines," Mariani said. "The collateral consequences get disproportionately huge. Did our society mean to punish someone to this extent for small infractions? Most would say no. We're making it impossible for people to dig out from under."
The second proposal would give judges the ability to waive or reduce the $75 state surcharge now applied to every petty misdemeanor and traffic ticket. Right now, Mariani said, judges can reduce or waive the fine itself, but are prohibited from touching the surcharge. "That's not right," Mariani said. "If a judge determines that the surcharge is going to present a real hardship to someone, they should have the ability to reduce or waive that."
Mariani said there is broad support for the proposals among civil rights groups, attorneys and others, and bipartisan support within the Legislature.
Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, a retired sheriff's deputy, said during a March hearing that "our fees and surcharges have gotten way out of hand," but said he did not know where the money would come from to make up the difference.
That, however, is not reason enough to let a situation that we know to be unjust continue. "Supporting courts and the criminal justice system is the responsibility of the entire citizenry," Mariani said, not just those caught breaking the law.
There is a vast network of fees built in across the criminal justice system that may take time to dismantle. But the two legislative proposals would go a long way toward alleviating the worst effects, and they deserve passage.