By BLAISE MESA
Kansas News Service
TOPEKA, Kansas— After Tyler Williams spent much of his teenage years locked up in the juvenile prison system, at age 19 he found himself owing more than $1,000 to the state of Kansas, including an $840 court fee. transported from Oklahoma to face charges in Junction City.
Working for minimum wage, it took Williams two years of his youth to clear all the charges and fines from his childhood crimes.
“It was a sigh of relief,” he said. “Removing this burden has definitely helped me have a better mindset and take control of my life.”
Fines and fees are commonly used to punish offenders and fund the justice system, but critics say they mostly make it harder for people to get their lives back on track.
This has fueled a push to make the courts less dependent on increasing the incomes of those convicted of crimes. Proponents of scrapping many of these fees and fines say lawmakers should consider scrapping them if they want people to escape the cycles of poverty and crime that tend to send people back to jail.
So far, a Kansas House committee has discussed dropping charges in the juvenile system. But there is no pending legislation yet that would put this change into law.
A survey by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice found that 38% of the roughly 1,000 people he spoke to turned to crime to help pay off their court debts. Other respondents gave up essentials like groceries to make payments or took out loans.
Unpaid fees in Kansas could also cause someone to lose their driver’s license, making it harder for them to get to work.
“There are a lot of unintended consequences with that,” Williams said. “You just throw them into society expecting them to fly when everything says they’re going to sink.”
Ed Klumpp, who represents several law enforcement advocacy groups in Kansas, said fines are one of the most reasonable tools to deter someone from committing a crime. Some crimes, like speeding, aren’t serious enough to warrant jail time, but do require some type of negative consequence.
Without penalties, Klumpp said, people are less likely to obey the law. But he said the fines hit people differently depending on their income. Courts can adjust monetary penalties so that they are not too onerous for low-income people.
Williams, a community leader with youth justice advocacy group Progeny, said fines would not have deterred him from the crime that got him locked up in his early teens. But ending up with more than $1,000 in debt at age 19 made life more difficult after his release.
Proponents of the changes said helping someone avoid crime, especially children, requires an investment in education, family life and neighborhoods. And they say there’s little evidence that fees and fines deter crime.
Although they seem similar, fines and fees are two different things. Fines are used to punish someone for a crime, such as paying a speeding ticket. The fee helps cover the cost of court system expenses, such as fees for filing court documents.
In Kansas, court-appointed attorneys’ fees and overturning prior convictions can cost hundreds of dollars.
Fees are also an unpredictable source of revenue. The COVID-19 pandemic has closed courts and kept more people at home. That resulted in a $7.3 million budget shortfall and a hiring freeze for Kansas courts last year. Courts typically receive $28 million in fees to fund core operations, but that total has been lower in the past two years due to the pandemic. Some courthouses could have closed without the additional funds approved by the state legislature.
In a 2021 report, the Fines and Fees Justice Center found $27.9 billion in uncollected fines and fees nationwide. Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, says that number significantly underestimates the true total because most states reported partial data or had no data on uncollected fines and fees.
Kansas did not provide data for the study.
“(Charges) have no place in the criminal justice system,” Weiss said. “The justice system is supposed to serve everyone, and therefore it should be funded by everyone.”
Klumpp said fees should never be used to punish someone for a crime, but said it was not unreasonable that someone who created the court fees should pay them themselves, so long as that they are not unrealistic. Some fees can, and regularly are, waived when someone is unable to pay.
Kansas Supreme Court Chief Justice Marla Luckert offered to walk away from the charges. Luckert urged lawmakers earlier this year to pass legislation that would send fees to the state’s general fund rather than directing them solely to the court system. In turn, the legislature would direct a more steady flow of funding to the justice system.
The bill would not reduce fines or costs associated with the criminal justice system.
Luckert said the much larger state budget is better equipped to handle fee collection shortfalls. Courts currently rely on fines and fees to fund 20% of their operations.
Rep. Troy Waymaster, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the current funding model limits how the courts operate.
“The executive branch and the legislative branch, we are funded from the general state fund,” Waymaster said. “The judiciary is a third form of government. … Perhaps they should also be financed from the general state fund.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected].