Stephans Wilburn, who lives in the neighborhood around 38th and Chicago, is struggling to emerge from the tangle of fees, surcharges and fines that are woven into Minnesota’s criminal justice system. Photo by Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Minnesota's criminal justice fees often fall hardest on poor

State, local leaders among growing number debating how to end dependence on criminal justice system fees and surcharges.

Stephans Wilburn's license was reinstated in January, and for the first time in more than two years the Minneapolis ironworker could get to construction sites or drive his children to school without worrying about another ticket for driving with a revoked license.

A month later, he missed a court date. The state suspended his license again, and the court fees and fines that have weighed on him for much of his life continue to stack up.

"You're kind of trapped," said Wilburn, who estimates he owes about $2,000. "Who can pay all this?"

Fees, surcharges and fines are woven into Minnesota's criminal justice system. They are used to punish people and cover state and local government expenses. They can also indebt the poorest Minnesotans to the state, disproportionately burden people of color and ensnare people in the criminal justice system just as they are hoping to leave it.

How fees compound a ticket

A $30 fine for expired car tabs can quickly balloon as a surcharge and law library fee are automatically added and late fees are assessed.

Minnesota Judicial Branch

Graphic by C.J. Sinner, Star Tribune

A $30 fine for expired vehicle tabs automatically balloons to as much as $120 with a state surcharge and fee to support law libraries. If someone can't pay right away, a late penalty is added.

There's a fee to be booked into some jails. Fees to be on probation, electronically monitored at home or released from jail to work during the day. A fee for court-ordered chemical dependency treatment. And while Americans have the constitutional right to an attorney, there's still a copay for a public defender.

"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,'" said Scott Williams, the deputy Ramsey County manager of safety and justice. Minnesota and its counties and municipalities have tacked on costs without coordination, he said. "That results in this cumulative impact on individuals trying to get on with their lives."

The state and local governments collected more than $91 million in fines, fees, surcharges for criminal and traffic cases in fiscal year 2020, according to data from the State Court Administrator's Office. People paid tens of millions more in previous years, but revenue fell as the courts delayed some payment deadlines during the pandemic. That extra time has run out.

Yet for a low-wage worker who lost pay due to COVID-19, an outstanding citation can be a higher financial hurdle than it was a year ago.

The state's judicial system was unable to collect nearly $49 million from 109,277 different unpaid fees, fines and other charges in 2020, and turned to the Department of Revenue to recoup the dollars. The department can collect some of the money by sending out warnings and garnishing wages and bank accounts.

But years of unpaid sums continue to add up. Minnesota currently has more than $140 million in outstanding court debt and the accumulated fees trying to collect it.

'Way out of hand'

The use of fines and fees has been growing across the country since the 1980s, when criminologists were advocating for a tougher approach to low-level crimes. Fines and "user" fees for people in the criminal justice system became an easy, fast alternative to raising taxes, a 2017 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report described.

The trend accelerated when the Great Recession hit starting in 2007 and communities faced budget gaps, said Priya Sarathy Jones with the Washington, D.C.-based Fines and Fees Justice Center.

A federal investigation into the Ferguson Police Department following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 highlighted the practice. The Department of Justice reported that the city's law enforcement and municipal court were focused not on public safety, but on revenue. "The court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City's financial interests," the Department found.

Ferguson is not an anomaly, Sarathy Jones said.

"This is happening everywhere. The problem is, it's happening so differently," she said, making it difficult to institute widespread reform. "What isn't different is who is the most impacted, and that's low-income and Black and Brown communities."

Drivers in poorer, more diverse areas of Minnesota are more likely to have their licenses suspended

State data show some of Minnesota's least white and least prosperous zip codes have the highest rates of suspension among drivers for failure to pay a fine or appear at a court date. Although the correlation occurs across Minnesota, it is most stark in Twin Cities metro area zip codes.

Source: Minnesota Department of Safety, U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey

Graphic by Jeff Hargarten and C.J. Sinner, Star Tribune

Minnesota Department of Public Safety data show that the state's ZIP codes with the highest percentage of license suspensions for failure to appear for a court date or pay fines coincide closely with ZIP codes that have the most people of color, and areas with a higher percentage of people in poverty.

Attorneys and advocates described those racial disparities in Minnesota during a legislative hearing on two proposed changes. One bill would prevent the suspension of someone's driver's license just because the person failed to pay a ticket or show up in court.

The change would not apply to more serious offenses. Wilburn, who was convicted of driving under the influence, said in such cases someone's license should be suspended. But he has also lost his license after failing to pay fines and show up in court, and said that traps people as they are trying to get to work and move forward with their life.

A second bill would address two surcharges: $75 automatically tacked on to any criminal conviction, petty misdemeanor or traffic violation ticket in the state, and $12 added to a parking offense. The change would allow the courts to reduce or waive the surcharges based on someone's ability to pay, or have that person do community service instead.

Those two surcharges made up a third of the more than $91 million people paid in court fines, fees and other assessments in 2020.

The DFL-controlled House included the changes in its public safety and transportation budget packages. Neither measure has progressed in the GOP-led Senate, but the ideas remain in play as state leaders negotiate Minnesota's next budget. The two bills are sponsored by both Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, and there is bipartisan support for shifting away from a reliance on court surcharges and fees.

"Our fees and surcharges have gotten way out of hand," said retired sheriffs' deputy and Republican Rep. Brian Johnson of Cambridge during the March hearing on the surcharge proposal. Later, in an interview, he said the problem is, "Where can we find the dollars to make up the difference?"

Johnson said he didn't know exactly how much money the state gets from such payments. "I'm afraid to look at it," he said.

Over the past three fiscal years, an average of more than $61 million in fines, late penalties, surcharges and other court assessments have gone into Minnesota's general fund each year, according to the State Court Administrator's Office. Smaller sums went to the State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources.

Counties, cities and other municipalities got another $33 million a year, on average. And it's at the local level where the shift away from fees and fines has started in earnest.

Dismantling a complex web

Zewde Ambaye has been on probation for three years, after he spent six months locked up for an arson conviction.

While many Ramsey County residents would have paid hundreds of dollars in probation supervision fees, the 31-year-old father's costs were waived. And then in 2020, the county eliminated the $300 probation supervision charge for everyone.

"You need to have money to be able to take care of kids and pay bills," Ambaye said, but that can be difficult with a felony record. After working at McDonalds, Ambaye found a job he likes installing signs at businesses. "I was lucky," Ambaye said, noting that his transition to probation was less stressful because he didn't owe fees, and that also allowed him to more easily pay for a car and rent.

Minnesota’s fines and fees

In 2020, Minnesota collected $91.2 million in fees, fines and surcharges. Where did that money go?

  • State general fund: $55.1 million
  • State Patrol: $6.1 million
  • Department of Natural Resources: $353,014
  • Local counties and municipalities: $29.7 million

How much money did the courts fail to collect, turning over to the Department of Revenue to try to recover?

  • $48.7 million from 109,277 different unpaid fees, fines and other charges

How much money did Revenue get through its collections process, which includes garnishing wages and bank accounts?

  • $18.7 million

What is the total amount of outstanding court debt and associated fees in Minnesota?

  • $140.4 million

Source: State Court Administrator's Office fiscal year 2020 data, Department of Revenue calendar year 2020 data

Ramsey County has been at the forefront of re-examining criminal justice system charges in Minnesota. The county cut about $675,000 in fines and fees in 2020 after working with a financial advisory firm to study its reliance on those charges.

"We have people that are trying to get out from under the criminal justice system, they are trying to move on with their lives. And it just feels counterproductive that as they are trying to exit the system they are loaded down with all this debt, these fees, many of which go uncollected," said Williams, the deputy manager of safety and justice.

But with local government budgets hit hard by the COVID-19 economic downturn, the best they can do this year is avoid backsliding on their pre-pandemic progress, Williams said.

The state's largest county has also been rethinking fees. Hennepin County removed urine test costs and a $35 fee to be booked into the Plymouth corrections facility in 2019. But the county paused the effort during last year's difficult budget situation, Community Corrections and Rehabilitation Director Catherine Johnson said, although they did temporarily waive some costs during the pandemic — including some phone call charges for people in the Plymouth facility.

This year, the county resumed the push by ending the probation supervision fee for certain low-income clients, and plans to remove that fee — $350 for someone with a felony conviction — for everyone over the next few years. Hennepin County also started allowing people who are incarcerated to have two free 20-minute phone calls a week, Johnson said, building off last year's temporary change.

Minutes on the phone pass quickly when you are locked up, Ambaye said, and many people can't afford calls.

"You need to be able to talk to somebody," he said. "You want to talk to your mom, your dad, your children, your significant other."

Wilburn, the Minneapolis ironworker, said he and others seem to be punished twice by the criminal justice system. He served time in prison, but also needed to pay fees. He has taken a financial hit for driving offenses and late ticket payments, but also lost his license. The added penalties increase recidivism, he said.

"You get out of these places, you can't find a job really, or you don't have a car or a license. And so these extra fees, they can bind you. Who has $400 when you're just trying to get by? Where does it come from?" Wilburn said.

But disentangling the web of state and local fees is complicated, said Hennepin County's Johnson.

For example, the county will waive the fee for alcohol electronic home monitoring — requiring someone to use remote breathalyzer equipment — if someone cannot afford it, Johnson said. The state partly reimburses the county for that. The money the state uses for that reimbursement comes from fees that people have to pay to get their driver's license reinstated, she said.

Nonetheless, cities and states across the country are starting to dismantle the decadeslong reliance on fees.

California is the first state to take broad action. It will end 23 criminal justice system administrative fees, such as probation and public defender fees, on July 1. San Francisco tackled the issue first, including stopping the suspension of driver's licenses for failure to pay in 2015. Anne Stuhldreher, San Francisco's financial justice director, said they've gotten calls from around the country asking if people are still paying traffic tickets. The city has actually reported a slight increase in money collected per citation, she said. The change was made statewide in 2017, and collections did not drop off.

North Carolina's Durham County waived millions in court fines and fees last October to allow more than 11,000 people to get their licenses back. New York's governor in December signed into law an end to license suspensions for failure to pay a traffic fine. In March, New Mexico joined a number of other states in eliminating some fines and fees for juvenile crimes.

"The math just doesn't add up," Stuhldreher said. "What we are gaining from these fines and fees, there is a greater cost in the community. And it is a cost that's borne by some of the most vulnerable folks."

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044. Twitter: @jessvanb