Samuel Shih: Is justice served with overwhelming fines?

Trust in law enforcement and the justice system is at an all-time low, even as protests have started to die down. While most recognize the need for fundamental change in policing, other aspects of the justice system also need reform, including the courts.

Most people’s interaction with the justice system comes in the form of a traffic stop. For the unlucky ones, they have to handle citations in Utah’s justice courts. These courts, which handle class B misdemeanors and below, are often viewed as nickeling and diming the citizenry. But are they? In most cases, no — but that’s not the perception. Whether they’re making extra money off fines and fees or not, to build trust in Utahns, all justice courts can take a simple yet effective step toward increased justice and fairness for all: Consider a person’s ability to pay.

Throughout the nation, significant parts of certain city and town budgets (mostly in rural jurisdictions) are funded by fines and local court revenue. This appears to create a perverse incentive for increasing the issuance of tickets, leading to excessive fines and fees. And Utah isn’t completely exempt from this problem. Governing Magazine conducted the largest nationwide analysis of fine revenues and found several jurisdictions nationwide, including cities and towns in Utah, had fines and fees comprising at least 10% — and in some other states at least 50% — of their budget.

In Utah, the issue with justice courts, which handle these fines and fees, is that they are directly tied in with the local government’s budget. Because they deal with lower level criminal cases, the justice court’s primary penalty is a fine, which makes them appear to only care about money. But a change in sentencing practices could help this.

According to state law, judges should be examining if the defendant can actually pay the fine. And justice courts should be doing just this, even for the lower level cases they handle.

In late July, we surveyed 15 public defenders in Utah to find out what their clients’ experiences with fines have been like in Utah’s justice courts. The vast majority stated the justice courts rarely or never assessed the defendants’ ability to pay their fine. If courts don’t consider ability to pay, then it could result in less people complying with the payment order.

In response to this claim, some of the justice courts said at the time of sentencing, the defendant can ask for a payment plan or community service option, but neither of these things is necessarily actively offered to them. If they are never informed of this option, they may be out of luck.

A few public defenders differentiated between urban and rural justice courts, stating that rural ones are more likely to need money from fines and therefore will never consider a defendant’s ability to pay, whereas the opposite applies to urban courts, which is consistent with the Governing report findings. Court revenues make up only a small portion of funding for the vast majority of local governments in Utah with some justice courts operating on a deficit. For the cities and towns relying heavily on fines, however, this dependence can cause courts to overlook the ability of defendants to pay.

Courts should also consider alternative methods of sentencing such as community service. The majority of public defenders we spoke to stated they had either rarely or never encountered a case where justice courts were willing to offer an alternative method of sentencing. This is even after the Utah Legislature passed a law in 2018 reaffirming that courts should provide this option for defendants.

Unlike normal fines, alternative methods of sentencing can restore peoples’ trust in the justice system, are fairly cheap and, most importantly, effective.

The vast majority of judges and police officers try earnestly to work hard and protect our communities during both peaceful and hard times. But the perception of a reliance on fines and fees harms public trust in legal institutions. Offering more alternative sentencing allows for more effective, individualized solutions and makes sure fundamental rights and justice are properly carried out. But perhaps more importantly in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, it would help restore public trust.

Samuel Shih | Libertas Institute

Samuel Shih is a student at Columbia University and an intern for the Libertas Institute, Lehi.