Commemorating the 2nd anniversary of the reestablishment of the Office for Access to Justice (ATJ), the office today published Access to Justice Spotlight: Fines & Fees, a report that highlights the most common and innovative approaches taking place across the country to reduce reliance on criminal and civil fines and fees. When fines and fees are assessed without consideration of ability to pay, they can have a devastating impact on a person’s life. Individuals who are unable to pay court-assessed fines and fees can face snowballing financial penalties, extended justice-system involvement, suspended driver’s licenses and unnecessary incarceration.
Associate Attorney General Gupta tasked ATJ with preparing the spotlight report to expand upon the principles set forth in the department’s Dear Colleague Letter issued in April that cautioned against practices to assess fines and fees that may be unlawful, unfairly penalize individuals who are unable to pay or otherwise have a discriminatory effect.
The report is designed to serve as a resource for policymakers looking to decrease systemic reliance on fines and fees as a source of revenue and to redress the harms fines and fees can cause. It reviews 12 categories of promising practices jurisdictions are employing across the country, from eliminating certain categories of fees altogether, to implementing meaningful ability to pay determinations, regulating debt collection and discharging existing debt. The report also includes a section addressing specific approaches jurisdictions can take to reduce the unintended harms of juvenile fines and fees.
“In just two years, the Office for Access to Justice has demonstrated the importance of establishing a stand-alone office dedicated to the mission of access for all,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “The office has launched initiatives to expand access to legal assistance; promote access to justice for veterans, those in rural communities, individuals with disabilities, low-income communities, and those who have limited English proficiency; and to promote data, innovation and the integrity of legal systems.”
“Over the last two years, our office has worked expeditiously and strategically to onboard a talented professional team and to develop initiatives that promote access to justice for all,” said Director Rachel Rossi of ATJ. “This report demonstrates how collaboration with partners across the country and world can drive this mission forward, to ensure justice belongs to everyone, not only those with wealth or status.”
In crafting the report, ATJ conducted listening sessions and solicited feedback from dozens of organizations, policymakers, advocates, academics, law enforcement leaders and court leaders who are pursuing a more just approach to fines and fees. Access to Justice Spotlight: Fines and Fees is part of ATJ’s ongoing efforts to promote economic justice in civil and criminal legal systems. The mission of ATJ is to ensure access to the promises and protections of our civil and criminal legal systems for all communities, regardless of wealth or status. Since it was reestablished in October 2021, the office has launched a number of initiatives, including:
- Expanding language access by hiring the first department-wide Language Access Coordinator, reconvening the Justice Department’s Language Access Working Group, leading efforts to update the Justice Department’s Language Access Plan for the first time in over a decade, and launching a pilot Translation Initiative, that has supported more than two dozen DOJ offices and 14 United States Attorneys’ Offices by providing technical assistance in translating printed and digital content into over 30 languages;
- Supporting public defense by co-leading a review of access to counsel in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) pretrial facilities at the direction of Deputy Attorney General Monaco that culminated in publication of the July 2023 Report and Recommendations Concerning Access to Counsel at the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Pretrial Facilities, partnering with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to sponsor a report, Gideon at 60: a Snapshot of State Public Defense Systems and Paths to System Reform on public defense system models in state, local, and Tribal jurisdictions, and leading a nation-wide tour to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, joined by Justice Department senior officials, to meet with public defense leaders and impacted communities across the country;
- Promoting successful reentry by leading six other federal agencies in the drafting and publication of the Reentry Coordination Council (RCC)’s Report, which sets forth recommendations to Congress to reduce barriers to successful reentry, and working with justice system impacted individuals to host a Reentry Simulation that allowed high level federal officials better understand the many complex barriers people face after being released from incarceration;
- Directing and staffing the work of the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR), including by publishing Access to Justice in the Age of COVID-19 (2021), and Access to Justice through Simplification, a Roadmap for People-Centered Simplification of Federal Government Forms, Processes, and Language (2022), and by hosting annual principal convenings of LAIR’s 28 federal agency leaders;
- Modernizing the DOJ Pro Bono Program by staffing over 25 different Pro Bono clinics across the country, mobilizing federal attorney volunteers from over 50 participating federal agencies to take on representation in over 200 pro bono matters, and by modernizing and streamlining the Pro Bono Program through the launch of the DOJ Pro Bono Portal;
- Pursuing access to justice for rural and Tribal communities, Veterans and individuals with disabilities, including through partnering with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to host listening sessions with legal aid providers who are assisting Veterans in the VA administrative process, launching a partnership with the Servicemembers and Veterans Initiative (SVI) and the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA) to promote and share resources and host roundtables on federal Veterans Treatment Courts (VTC) and Veterans reentry programs with U.S. Attorneys, publishing Advancing Equal Access to Justice for Americans with Disabilities: Moving Towards Closing the Justice Gap on the 33rd Anniversary of the ADA; and engaging in a series of law school visits across the country to promote legal help in rural and Tribal communities;
- Assisting the U.S. with implementation of UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, including by participating in the 31st Session of the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice and providing technical assistance during negotiations of the first-ever resolution on access to justice which was adopted by the Commission;
- Prioritizing people-centered justice and engagement by meeting with and learning from innovative leaders and community members in 24 states where access to justice solutions are being developed, hosting quarterly convenings with the nation-wide state Access to Justice Commissions, and hosting quarterly convenings with the public defense community.