New law erases court debt for low-income Rhode Islanders

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PROVIDENCE — Low-income Rhode Islanders who are charged with crimes will be spared from paying court costs and fees if they prove in court they lack the financial means to pay those debts, under a new state law.

Acknowledging court fees can prove an insurmountable hurdle for some people who can tie them to the courts, state lawmakers in the last session passed legislation that eliminates all costs, assessments and fees for people deemed indigent. Those fees will also be waived for anyone serving more than 30 days in jail under the law enacted late last month.

“It’s brought a lot of healing and relief to those who have been in the system for too many years, too long,” said Cedric Huntley, executive director of the Nonviolence Institute.

Huntley recalled that a man finally felt free to get his driver’s license after a judge waived his legal fees.

“It gives people the opportunity to explore other opportunities. It changed the way he looked at the system,” Huntley said.

Fees will be automatically waived for those unable to pay

Previously, state law specified that judges “may” waive fees for those who could not pay, but it was applied unevenly by judges. Under the new law, fees will automatically be waived for indigents and those serving sentences longer than 30 days.

The law empowers the courts to determine whether a defendant is eligible based on their court application or sworn testimony. Individuals will automatically be eligible if they are enrolled in benefit programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; Social Security; public assistance; disability insurance; or food stamps.

The law also allows people with limited ability or inability to pay court fees, assessments, and fees to ask the court to waive court fees.

None of the legislation would affect court-ordered restitution for victims or for property damage.

Court fees and fines were mandatory and amounted to thousands of dollars for some, tying people to the courts long after serving their sentence and as they tried to rebuild their lives. A missed court date came with the threat of being arrested on a warrant and ending up behind bars.

After: Failure to pay full restitution has kept people on probation indefinitely at the RI. No more

Break the cycle

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington and Majority Leader Sen. Michael McCaffrey at the behest of the judiciary, aims to ensure that court costs are not an insurmountable obstacle as people try to find a job and rebuild. their lives after serving their sentence.

“There are thousands of people in Rhode Island who are only paying $10 a month for their court debts, which means they’re going to have this hanging over their heads practically forever. A large part of the fees are not paid. Missing a payment results in more charges and can lead to a person’s arrest, perpetuating the cycle,” McCaffrey, D-Warwick, said in a statement. “It’s an overly punitive second sentence imposed on defendants on top of their actual sentence, and it’s counterproductive to rehabilitation.”

According to a study by the State Budget Office, 64.4% of court fees collected from fiscal year 2019 to 2021 went to general revenue. Another 31% went to the crime victim compensation program, while 4.4% went to municipalities and the Rhode Island Coalition to End Domestic Violence.

For criminal cases in which a person served 30 days or more, this averaged $305,369 per year, meaning the projected revenue loss is $305,369 in future years in this category. .

The potential impact of the cost waiver for indigents is less clear, according to the Budget Office. Revenue from criminal cases for the same period averaged $2.6 million, but the data is not tied to information about a defendant’s financial status or indigence.

Racial and Ethnic Equity in the Courts

The law is an offshoot of Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell’s creation of a State Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equity in the Courts, which reviewed the judicial practices that may result in injustices and disparate impacts on race and ethnicity. minority communities. Led by Supreme Court Justice Melissa Long, the group focused, in part, on the impact of mandatory court fees.

Over the past year, the court has conducted debt review programs that have waived fees for dozens of people, if they prove to a judge they are unable to pay.

The Center for Health and Justice Transformation at Miriam Hospital, which works with people after they are released from prison, was among the bill’s supporters.

“As we have been running the community cost review hearings over the past few months, it has been truly amazing to see the burden lifted for people whose court debts have been forgiven. These are people who have incomes limited, and for them to have one less cost to worry about, and one less thing to tie them to their conviction history. It’s an overwhelming relief that we see and hear every time,” said Sarah J. Martino, the center’s deputy director, in an email.

She hopes the passage of the law will extend this relief to thousands more people.

The legislation was also supported by the Rhode Island Public Defender’s Office and a coalition of advocacy organizations, including Open Doors and the Rhode Island Center for Justice.

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