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COSCA Paper Highlights Effective Court Policies for Compliance with Legal Financial Obligations

The Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), released its 2015-2016 policy paper recommending specific policies and practices that courts can adopt to minimize the negative impact of legal financial obligations (LFOs) and end so-called “debtors’ prisons,” while ensuring accountability for individuals violating the law.

This paper examines the growth of debt imposed by legislative bodies through courts and the incarceration that results from failure to pay ,as well as significant collateral consequences incarceration brings to those unable to pay.  The paper discusses the issues created by reliance on funding courts through fine and fee revenue and the impact of using private for-profit entities to collect court-related LFOs.

“COSCA has long advocated against the practice of funding courts and other government activities through fees.  In this paper COSCA advocates for lawful, effective, and just policies toward those who are ordered to pay fines and fees,” said Arthur Pepin, the President of COSCA and Director of the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts.  “The objective is compliance, whether through payment in money, performing community service, or creating alternative ways to satisfy the public policy behind the imposition of fines and fees.  Incarceration must remain as the ultimate sanction for those who are able to pay but willfully refuse to do so.”

Recommendations included in the paper focus on:

  • strengthening the capacity of courts to assess the ability to pay through the use of automated tools or other existing means tests;
  • adopting practices that reduce failures to appear, such as using phone call and text message reminders of pending court dates;
  • expanding and improving access to alternatives to incarceration, such as community service;
  • ensuring judges have the authority to impose alternatives for those unable to pay; and,
  • ultimately, imposing jail time for an offender’s willful refusal to pay.

The press release for this paper notes that this is not the first time COSCA has addressed similar issues.  In 2012, COSCA issued a policy paper with the position that courts should not be treated as revenue centers. In that paper, COSCA outlined a series of principles, including:

  1. Courts should be substantially funded from general governmental revenue sources, enabling them to fulfill their constitutional mandates.
  2. Neither courts nor specific court functions should be expected to operate exclusively from proceeds produced by fees and miscellaneous charges.
  3. Optional local fees or miscellaneous charges should not be established.

This new policy paper, and other COSCA papers are available online.