Imposition of Court Fees and Costs on Indigent Defendants

Imposition of Court Fees and Costs on Indigent Defendants [past initiative]

Court related debt can damage the lives and financial well-being of many of Georgia poorest residents. Fees and costs imposed by Georgia courts for utilizing court services or related functions can add greatly to the financial liability of defendants in minor criminal or civil code violation cases and can lead to a spiral of default, probation, and incarceration. In 2010, the Brennan Center for Law and Justice identified Georgia among 15 states with a remarkably harsh approach to assessment and collection of fees and fines against indigent defendants.

Georgia courts and penal systems are authorized to charge offenders with fees related to a myriad of administrate costs and services separate and apart from fines levied for punishment. For instance, defendants can be required to reimburse a court for electronic monitoring, which can cost a defendant as much as $400 per month. Georgia cities are allowed to collect a 10% fee in addition to any fine to support jail costs and construction. The City of Lilburn adds a 10% fee to any fine when a defendant appears in court to challenge a minor traffic citation rather than pleading guilty and mailing in payment. Courts are authorized to collect up to 20% of the total amount of fines and bond payments to support peace officers, prosecutor training, and indigent criminal defense efforts. Notably, the public defender fee is collected through probation if the defendant fails to pay it.

In all, a wide range of fees and costs are imposed or passed on to the defendants in criminal and ordinance violation matters. While these fees can create a significant financial burden on a group of citizens that includes many of the poorest Georgians, cumulative statistics on "user fees" imposed are not readily available. More study is needed to quantify these costs and their impact on Georgia's indigent defendants.

Phase I (investigation) activities will include review of existing statutes and case law that address the imposition of fines, fees and court costs by Georgia state or municipal courts to determine what laws authorize such imposition, and what restrictions or limits exist on that authority. Selected samples of municipal and county ordinances will be reviewed to evaluate how localities are applying their statutory authority. In addition to this legal research, efforts will be made to collect facts and data to determine the existence and extent of problem in Georgia concerning the imposition of fines, fees and costs on indigent defendants and how penalties are enforced if defendants are unable to pay. Stakeholder interviews will also be considered. The team will generate a written report of findings. The extent to which the findings will be disseminated (Phase II) and whether Georgia Appleseed should undertake any advocacy for law or policy revision (Phase III) will be determined following review of the Phase I report.