Proportional justice: the challenges of implementing court fine and fee reform in California

Thesis (M.P.P.A., Public Policy and Administration)--California State University, Sacramento, 2020.

Statement of Problem : The current tariff-fine system used throughout courts in the United States sets punitive fines based on the seriousness of an offense but does not consider the defendant's ability to pay. This system disproportionately harms low income people and burdens them with legal debt that is not dischargeable and can result in jail time if ultimately unpaid. This thesis analyzes the potential of implementing an alternative fine system, known as day-fines, in California courts. In a day-fine system, a fine is based on units with each unit representing a multiple of the defendant's daily income and additional units can be assessed for more serious crimes. Sources of Data : In this study, I conducted three semi-structured interviews with a former California court administrator, an expert on California courts, and a Judicial Administration Fellow. I also reviewed papers and articles on day-fine pilot programs previously implemented around the United States as well as evaluated an annual report for a currently implemented pilot program in California for online traffic adjudication and ability-to-pay. Additionally, I assessed a response to a questionnaire sent to the author of a report on a day-fine pilot program that failed in Ventura County, California. Policy Recommendations : Based on my findings, I provide the following policy recommendations that California courts should consider when implementing a day-fine system in California courts: 1) Ensure software vendors have experience with and understand case management systems so that any new software can properly interface with existing systems; 2) Engage with all judges in the participating courts early in the process; 3) Advertise the value of the pilot program to stakeholders and the public as early as possible; 4) Upon implementation, prepare and record extensive analytics on key data such as revenues, changes in sentencing patterns, and feedback from court participants; and 5) Include a broad coalition of stakeholders in the planning and implementation phases; this should especially involve stakeholders who hold reservations about the program.