Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform

71 Pages Posted: 31 Aug 2020

See all articles by Brian Highsmith

Brian Highsmith

Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law; Harvard University, Department of Government

Date Written: August 2020


Since 2018, the Liman Center at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP), in partnership with the Fines & Fees Justice Center and the Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, have collaborated to mitigate the problems faced by people of limited means and resources who interact with criminal punishment systems around the United States. Through a series of workshops and materials, we have examined how law has enabled and, on occasion, limited these harms, experienced disproportionately by communities of color.

Budget pressures are part of what drives state and local governments to rely on monetary sanctions. Reform efforts have, at times, been stymied by arguments that governments “need” the money generated by regressive fines and fees. In 2008, during and after the Great Recession, state and local governments responded to sudden budget pressures by searching for new streams of revenues—including from a host of legal assessments. Given that experience, we know that the economic disruptions created by the current COVID-19 crisis will likely result in governments’ considering additional use of monetary sanctions and “user” fee financing to generate revenue. The current economic constraints place strains on subnational budgets even more acute than those experienced a dozen years ago. Thus, we fear that governments may scale up the imposition and the enforcement of monetary sanctions. More tools are needed to resist these efforts, as the economic effects of the pandemic will frame the years to come.

Knowledge of subnational systems of taxing and budgeting and of fiscal policymaking processes can be put to use to reduce and to end governments’ reliance on user fees for courts and for other aspects of criminal systems. This reader aims to help experts in public finance to understand the misuse of court-based assessments which are regressive revenue streams. Subsequent volumes will provide a primer on public finance for people knowledgeable about the law and practices of unfair monetary sanctions through an overview of how money is collected and allocated at the state and local level.

These materials interact with ongoing seminars, sometimes virtual, to link people expert in public
finance with their counterparts seeking to reform unfair monetary sanctions. Through monographs such as this, we hope to support work underway to shape just and equitable revenue-generation mechanisms that avoid imposing harmful costs on vulnerable individuals, families, and communities.

Keywords: public finance, fines and fees, criminal punishment, monetary sanctions, fiscal policy

JEL Classification: H25

Suggested Citation

Highsmith, Brian and Highsmith, Brian, Fees, Fines, and the Funding of Public Services: A Curriculum for Reform (August 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3681001 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3681001

Brian Highsmith (Contact Author)

Harvard University, Department of Government ( email )

United States

Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics