Criminal fines are monetary payments given by the offender to punish the crime. They are meant to punish an offender, similar to incarceration. A state or federal law generally provides a maximum and minimum fine for a particular crime. Different amounts are set in each state, and it is important to research in your local county.
Usually, the more egregious the crime, the higher the payment of the criminal fine. For instance, a traffic violation is a serious offense and can be punishable only by a fine, not jail time. Therefore, a fine may be less than $500. Misdemeanor crimes might carry maximum fines of about $500, $1,000, or $2,500. However, felonies may go up to tens of thousands of dollars. Every state and federal government has different fine amounts for crimes.
How Are the Criminal Fines Determined?
There is discretion for the judges when it comes to determining criminal fines. Usually, a judge may consider the following factors for an appropriate amount:
- Does the defendant have a criminal record;
- Financial ability of the defendant to make the necessary payments;
- The severity and seriousness of the crime and;
- Defendant’s regret or willingness to make amends for the offense.
Judges are more lenient for misdemeanors and impose merely a fine without jail time. But if the conviction was for a felony or serious misdemeanor, a judge might impose a higher criminal fine with jail time, probation, or community service. Furthermore, restitution is a payment that goes directly to the victim to cover the costs of damaged property, medical bills, or funeral costs. In many states, restitution is part of the criminal sentence.
Fines and restitution are not the only methods for defendants to pay for their crimes. Most states have regulations that mandate judges or court clerks to add certain fees to a sentence. Unlike fines, judges cannot waive fees or consider the defendant’s ability to pay the fee. Fees and surcharges raise revenue for the government to operate the criminal justice system.
What’s the Difference Between Fees and Fines?
Fines placed upon conviction are generally meant for punishment and deterrence. For example, a fine of up to $2,000 may be imposed for more serious misdemeanors, such as harassment or minor drug possession. However, the primary reason for fees is to raise revenue for the government. Fees are automatic and have no relation to the charged offense.
Fees encompass most of the criminal justice process, including court-appointed attorney fees, court clerk fees, filing clerk fees, DNA database fees, jury fees, crime lab analysis fees, late fees, installment fees, and other surcharges.
Fees and fines serve as revenue sources for state and local governments. The permissible uses for this revenue are ordained by statute. Many fees are utilized for special purposes, such as programs that divert defendants from prison, courthouse maintenance, or traffic safety education. Fine revenue is distributed according to the statute in each of the states. You can research more on how your local state handles criminal fines to learn more.
A recent study conducted by the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House estimates that tens of millions of individuals in the United States have been assessed fines or fees as part of the punishment for a criminal offense. There has been a significant increase in criminal fines in recent years. Moreover, they are more common in misdemeanors, infractions, and other relatively less serious crimes than in felonies.
Below are some examples of the financial obligations stemming from these fines:
- The charges are for representation by a public defender;
- Any court appearances;
- Room and board for prison stays, parole, or probation services;
- Court-mandated drug testing;
- Community Service and;
- Any electronic monitoring.
Additional fines can incur if they are not paid promptly. But in most states, the burden to pay can be placed on poor defendants.
What Are Waivers and Jail Credits?
In some jurisdictions, the judges can decrease a certain amount of fees and fines set at conviction. The amounts reduced without a quid pro quo (such as time spent in jail) often are referred to as waivers. The issuance of waivers depends on the jurisdiction and which state you reside in.
Moreover, other states can waive fees and fines in exchange for jail time, which are referred to as jail credits and are separate from the credits through which people earn reductions to sentences. However, it is important to remember that it may seem like a way out for some, but it does not mean that someone is given this option. It is strictly court based and depends on a case by case.
As stated earlier, many defendants are not provided with an opinion. For instance, one New Mexico judge jailed persons who missed three payments without making a court appearance, even if they could pay.
In many instances, when people are placed on a warrant for a failure to pay traffic tickets or fines, they may be jailed involuntarily to pay off delinquent criminal justice debt. The credits are issued for each day spent in jail, and they do not generate actual revenue but exchange jail time for debt reduction at a high cost to the government. There is no doubt that jail time impacts the defendants and their families.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that imprisonment for unpaid fines or fees without a hearing to determine the ability to pay is considered unconstitutional. If courts discover that a defendant cannot pay, they must consider other options, such as deferrals, payment plans, community service, and waivers. In reality, the court systems may be unable to make these financial considerations.
What are Community Service Credits?
Most states offer some sort of community service alternative to make the payments. These programs will vary depending on which state you reside in and what the regulations are. For instance, some states provide programs that task people to pick up trash or maintain parks instead of a jail sentence or fine.
But other states have educational mandates that require certification to pay off the debt. These programs are meant to provide options for defendants ordered by the court to fulfill them.
However, according to earlier research, community service tasks are assigned to the defendants because judges feel pressure to raise revenue for their city or county. Sometimes, these opportunities to complete community service are compensated. The defendants might receive the federal minimum wage for completing the tasks as needed. But, in reality, paying off any debt with these sorts of tasks is challenging. It can become especially hard for families financially dependent on this individual for income.
When Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer?
Criminal fines vary based on the crime and jurisdiction. There is a system for these fines; failure to pay them can result in serious legal consequences. If you have issues or concerns with the criminal fines, do not hesitate to contact a local criminal defense lawyer to assist you. Your lawyer can provide the guidance needed for your case.