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Georgia Budget and Policy Institute-Unjust Revenue From an Imbalanced Criminal Legal System

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Georgia Budget & Policy Institute

Unjust Revenue from an Imbalanced
Criminal Legal System: How Georgia’s
Fines and Fees Worsen Racial Inequity
By Ray Khalfani, Worker Justice and Criminal Legal Systems Policy Analyst

Key Takeaways:
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•

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Georgia’s poor governance of fines and fees revenue practices has allowed many
economically underperforming localities to over-rely on fines and fees revenue,
significantly contributing to Georgia having the highest probation rate in the country. Of
the more than 430,000 Georgians who were on probation in 2018, nearly 40 percent of
them were on probation for misdemeanors or traffic fines.
While the national average among localities’ fines and fees revenue as a share of
general revenue was 2 percent, Georgia consistently ranked second-worst among states
with localities with fines and fees shares above 10 percent, and second-worst among per
capita amounts of fines paid among adult residents in 2018.
Abusive fines and fees practices and lack of protections for Georgians in deep poverty,
have disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic Georgians long before the pandemic
and worsened in many localities during a pandemic that has been most unforgiving to
low-income communities. Among the 27 Georgia counties that increased their fines and
fees share of general revenue from 2019 to 2020, 12 of them had population shares that
were higher than 36 percent Black, significantly higher than the overall state, where 33
percent of Georgians are Black.

Introduction
Georgia’s policy framework that governs fines and fees practices gives Georgia courts broad
discretion across state, county and municipal jurisdictions. While this current level of flexibility
allows each jurisdiction to address unique needs, it also incentivizes and leaves room for
revenue-strapped jurisdictions to engage in abusive fines and fees assessment and collection
practices that carry heavy human and economic collateral costs. Many of these collateral costs
remain hidden from public accountability. Furthermore, while the concept of flexibility and
discretion given to local court jurisdictions may seem like a virtue, in practice, it does not often
translate into flexible debt resolution options for criminal legal system-facing Georgians charged

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with fines and fees. Moreover, it exacerbates racial and economic inequities and compromises
public safety across the state.
By pairing punitive and revenue-raising approaches meant to deter criminal and civil infractions
and fund public services, Georgia’s fines and fees approach adds another harmful layer of
regressive fiscal policy by creating a two-tiered system of justice, where those who can afford to
pay court debt can move forward with their lives and those who cannot—often people of color—
are placed in a vicious cycle of debt, hopelessness and criminal legal system involvement.
While an equitable fines and fees system cannot exist in our current, broken legal system,
improvements to the framework and standards under which it operates are possible.

Fine and Fees and their History of Inequality
“Court fines and fees” is a phrase often used to describe a broader set of legal financial
obligations (LFOs) that are charged, enforced and collected from criminal and civil defendants
by courts, police departments and public or private supervision entities. Their origin can range
from citations given to those who commit minor traffic or parking violations 1 to financial charges
given to those who commit misdemeanor or felony crimes.
Fines can include punitive charges and/or restitution to victims, are imposed upon conviction
and are intended as both a deterrent and means of punishment. 2 Fees, however, are primarily
intended to raise revenue and shift criminal legal system costs from all Georgians to solely
those who are defendants and who are often tagged as the “users of the courts” to justify
financial penalties that are anything but equitable. They are added on to base fine amounts,
contribute to the funding of almost every part of the criminal justice process, as well as
unrelated programs, and are earmarked to fund court-appointed attorney fees, court clerk fees,
filing clerk fees, DNA database fees, jury fees, crime lab analysis fees and several other
designated state and local areas of government.
Court fees also include a number of surcharges that effectively penalize poverty, including late
fees, payment plan fees and interest when Georgians do not have the money to pay all at
once. 3 Year after year, lawmakers often increase or expand these fees with little to no review or
evaluation process to consider the financial and human costs to vulnerable Georgians as well
as the wider consequences to the economy. 4
Fines and fees in Georgia have long shaped our criminal legal system and economy, and have
played a role in setting the modern stage for political participation and the labor market, each of
which collides with the notion of whether the wealthy and non-wealthy, white and non-white, and
immigrant and non-immigrant should have equal freedoms and protections. Ironically, colonial
Georgia was originally created in 1733 as a refuge for the poor 5 to escape the cycle of
incarceration and debt. Slavery was initially prohibited as a means to encourage the settlement
of poor “English and Christian” people. These sentiments quickly changed, and by the end of
the Civil War, many Southern states, including Georgia, 6 used criminal justice debt as a means
to re-enslave African Americans. 7 These anti-Black policies, used in tandem with others such as
the state poll tax, were designed to systematically disenfranchise and overtax Black voters in
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Georgia. 8 The remnants of poll taxes in their most direct form were removed in late 2020 when
the secretary of state clarified 9 voter eligibility for Georgians who have completed a felony
sentence but still owe money for restitution to crime victims, fees and court costs. And while
Georgia allows those with misdemeanor convictions to retain voter eligibility, those who are in
deep poverty and faced with impossible debt choices may feel forced to commit repeated or
higher-level crimes, often as a means of survival through spiraling debt, which could be
considered felonies that warrant a loss of voting privileges.
Georgia’s fines and fees system may no longer serve as a poll tax, but the insurmountable debt
that it places on countless Georgians in poverty may force them into a broader separation from
society. Unpayable debt may compel impoverished Georgians to commit additional infractions
to earn income to pay court debts, place assets in other people’s names to avoid interaction
with the state and risk never fully reintegrating into civic life, such as by not voting, in the
attempt to avoid being tracked by debt collecting officials that they cannot afford to pay. 10 For
example, speaking about those who had their driver’s license suspended for non-payment of
court debt, a former Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) executive testified that nearly
75 percent of individuals whose driver’s licenses are suspended continue to drive, despite the
risks involved, further complicating their situation if they are caught. 11 Beyond being legally
stripped from a means of earning money to pay court debt, countless Georgians committing
minor legal infractions are needlessly stripped off an essential tool to meet basic needs. 12 Many
are left with no choices in a state with one of the worst public transit systems in the US, ranking
No. 44 in commute time and No. 29 in public transit usage, which likely means long commute
times and insufficient availability to meet daily travel needs. 13
A common domino effect of hardship for a Georgian experiencing poverty and who is unable to
pay court debt is their difficulty regaining driving privileges if their license is suspended:
A Georgian has their driver’s license suspended for failure to appear in court. Ironically, they
failed to appear because they were incarcerated and literally could not attend their court date.
Furthermore, they cannot get their license back until 1) their case is fully adjudicated; 2) they
pay all fines, fees and surcharges; and 3) pay the Department of Driver Services (DDS)
reinstatement fees. After being released from jail, they go to traffic court and resolve their case.
While in court, they are assessed fines and fees which they cannot pay. Also, it is discovered
that two additional Failure to Appear charges (FTAs) require resolution and assessment of more
fines and fees. The court provided no option to enter payment plans to pay off these debts,
placing this indigent Georgian deeper into debt. Even worse, they are unable to obtain a job
because they can’t drive. Later on, these impossible choices lead them to drive their child to an
important doctor appointment out of necessity, and they are pulled over by law enforcement,
arrested for driving on a suspended license, serve jail time and is assessed even more fines
and surcharges. Eventually, they are somehow able to resolve all outstanding cases and go to
DDS to get their license back. However, because a DDS reinstatement fee attaches for every
individual reason for suspension, they ultimately face hundreds of dollars of reinstatement fees,
even after having the reinstatement fees cut in half due to their low income and are therefore
still unable to get their license back. 14
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Policy Landscape that Governs Fines and Fees Practices
Georgia’s criminal court system is made up of nine court types. Seven of them—business,
municipal, magistrate, probate, juvenile, state and superior courts—are trial courts. 15 The Court
of Appeals and Supreme Court are the state’s appellate courts. While the Georgia Constitution
of 1983 classifies its collection of courts as a “unified judicial system,” its structure allows for a
relative level of independence among court types, 16 and aside from municipal courts that are
solely funded by municipal revenue, offers mixed funding types to trial courts that are either
funded by revenues from the state, counties or both. 17 Therefore, state law sets broad rules
including maximum fine amounts or penalties, while local criminal legal systems determine what
is owed and collected and whether they will contract with private probation companies to
manage misdemeanor fines and fees collection. Private probation companies offer contractual
agreements to collect fines and fees for local governments at no direct cost, in exchange for the
freedom to profit from added fees charged to misdemeanor debtors who cannot afford to
immediately pay their fines and fees assessed by judges. Georgians in deep poverty are
therefore placed on “pay-only probation,” which criminally scolds them for living in poverty. And
what is the punishment? More debt with interest, often enforced by aggressive collection tactics
that threaten Georgians in poverty with greater debt or incarceration that may be wrongly
warranted by charges of willful nonpayment. Because profiteering companies absorb local
government collection costs, fines and fee revenue interests often take priority over due process
to protect Georgians in deep poverty from fines and fees they cannot pay. Aggressive private
collections actions are often ignored by judicial systems, to maintain a consistent flow of
revenue that is often extorted from Georgians who are forced to make impossible choices to pay
their debt.
One Georgian in deep poverty had their experience with a private probation company
summarized in the following way:
Rita Luse from Cleveland, Georgia received a traffic citation a few years ago and pleaded guilty
to driving while unlicensed in the county probate court. She owed a fine, and because she could
not pay that fine when she appeared in court, she was put on probation with a private probation
company, Sentinel Offender Services LLC. She was placed on probation supervision although
she posed no threat to public safety, making it difficult to conceive of any legitimate reason why
her behavior would need to be monitored. Yet, under the system in Cleveland, as in so many
places, Ms. Luse’s inability to pay a fine resulted in her having a “probation officer,” reporting to
a probation officer, paying “supervision fees” and submitting her urine for drug testing at her
expense. On one occasion during the course of her probation, Ms. Luse, who did not have a lot
of money, came up short. When she asked for extra time to pay, her probation officer told her
that if she did not pay by the end of the day, a warrant would be issued for her arrest. Ms. Luse
secured an emergency loan from a relative and raced across town to borrow money and convert
the cash into a money order, fearful that she would be jailed if she did not deliver $140 to the
probation office before closing time. 18

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Judicial discretion is a vital component of justice and fairness. However, when influenced or
swayed by fiscal motivations or bias, it forfeits equal protections to Georgians and becomes an
obstructor of justice. This perversion of discretion is arguably at its worst in Georgia, as too
many local judicial systems choose not to meaningfully consider the ability to pay among
economically vulnerable and Georgians in deep poverty who face court debt. This translates
into disproportionate shares of individuals and families encountering the criminal legal system
who cannot successfully exit because a family member or loved one cannot afford to pay their
fines and fees.
More broadly, it heavily contributes to Georgia leading the nation with the highest probation rate,
which is the number of probationers per 100,000 residents, with nearly 40 percent of them on
probation for misdemeanor or traffic offenses.19 In tandem, Georgia ranked among the worstperforming states in fines and fees abuse, based on a 2019 nationwide analysis done by
Governing, which included more than 800 cities, towns, villages and counties. It ranked No. 1
among states with localities that had fines and fees revenue that was more than 10 percent of
general revenue, No. 1 among states with localities with shares above 20 percent, No. 2 among
those above 30 percent and No. 2 among those with shares above 50 percent. It ranked No. 2
among states with the highest per capita amounts of fines among adult residents. 20
Georgia’s broad discretion has given way to practices among judges to give a post-sentencing
review of ability-to-pay rather than a pre-sentencing ability-pay-hearing. Post-sentencing
reviews fail to protect Georgians in deep poverty from non-payment sanctions that can occur
immediately after being charged with court debt. 21 And when ability-to-pay hearings are granted,
Georgia rejects the notion of a right to counsel even when civil debt proceedings could result in
incarceration, leaving those who cannot afford legal help at significant risk of incarceration
because they cannot legally navigate those hearings on their own. This is essentially a
consequence of simply being poor. 22 State law also allows judges to extend an individual’s term
of probation, even if all other probation obligations have been satisfied except for outstanding
debt due to poverty. 23
While less forceful and austere than court fines and fees, wealth extraction from vulnerable
communities is also present in Georgia’s primary revenue-raising approach, its tax system,
which continues to widen racial and economic inequities for low-income communities and
people of color. Revenue generated under Georgia’s tax structure is driven by regressive state
and local sales and use taxes, an outdated personal income tax and corporate tax loopholes
that allow a growing share of Georgia’s economy to be irresponsibly exempt from taxation that
can fund critical public investments. 24 This is only part of a state structure with deep roots in
intentionally racist policies, including slavery and Jim Crow, along with disparate policing
practices and mass incarceration, that are directly tied to the historic overrepresentation of
Black families in Georgia’s low-income tax brackets.

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Furthermore, racial gaps remain through systemic practices that perpetually barricade many
Black Georgians from equitable access to adequate health care, quality early pre-K through
12th-education, quality workforce training, high-wage jobs, wealth accumulation and
unemployment and social safety net protections 25—each of which meaningfully and collectively
leads to and maintains economic prosperity.
Its fines and fees structure forcibly compounds these systemic harms, incentivizing a growing
practice 26 among local court and police jurisdictions to increase their reliance on fines and
fees—which disproportionately traps low-income Georgians, who are overrepresented by Black
and Hispanic families, in debt that they cannot afford to pay—to avoid raising taxes that can be
equitably shared by a larger pool of Georgians. Economic downturns, coupled with the state’s
limited revenue-raising options outside of fines and fees, have shown to increase the likelihood
that local governments will turn to this form of financial abuse. And coinciding with the current
economic downturn brought on by the COVID public health crisis, state lawmakers have made
and maintained nearly $2 million in austerity cuts since Fiscal Year (FY) 2020. These cuts
represent more than a 5 percent funding reduction across a handful of areas within Georgia’s
judicial system, 27 placing greater pressure on local courts to generate their own revenue and
further incentivizing them to look to fines and fees to make up for lost funding.

Budget Cuts Stripped Local Courts of Nearly $2 Million, Or 5%, Since FY
2020, Leaving Some Likely to Replace With Fine and Fee Revenue
$16,000,000
$14,000,000
$12,000,000
$10,000,000
$8,000,000
$6,000,000
$4,000,000
$2,000,000
$0

Judicial Council

Juvenile Courts

Prosecuting
Judicial
Attorneys Council Administrative
Districts
FY
2020
Spending
FY
2022
Spending
■
■

Council of
Superior Court
Clerks

Source: GBPI Analysis of FY 2020 and FY 2022 Appropriation Bills.

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State budget cuts have unavoidable racial consequences that manifest in several ways.
Funding reductions to local courts often spur them to have a greater reliance on fines and fees
to generate revenue, which worsens inequities because of the divergent impacts along racial
and ethnic lines. With longstanding equity gaps in employment, incarceration levels and wealth,
Black and Hispanic Georgians of color more often encounter barriers to paying off court debts,
compared to others.
These inequities are reflected through overrepresentation among Black and Hispanic Georgians
in lower-wage, unstable jobs due to occupational segregation, lack of access to quality
workforce training and racial hiring bias, which in turn, perpetuate historic gaps in
unemployment and underemployment. Sadly, these inequities have continued throughout the
pandemic recovery 28 and made many Black and Latinx Georgians more vulnerable and unable
to afford a fine and fee charge that could more easily be paid for by their white or Asian
counterparts who encounter the legal system.
Research from the Federal Reserve shows that in 2020, 39 percent of employed Black
households would not be able to pay some or all of their monthly bills after a sudden $400
expense, compared to 38 percent of employed Hispanic households and only 18 percent of
employed white households. Among unemployed households in 2020, 65 percent of Black
households reported not being able to cover some or all of their bills after a sudden $400
expense, compared to 58 percent and 36 percent of Hispanic and white households,
respectively. 29 These gaps have likely carried into the third quarter of 2021, as Black and
Hispanic Georgians experienced higher unemployment and significantly higher
underemployment than other groups 30 and are less likely than white workers to qualify for
unemployment insurance protections. 31 Greater use of fines and fees to fund local governments
only makes these disparities wider.
Unemployment rates of those coming out of prison are notoriously high. According to the
National Institute for Justice, following the first year of release, up to 60 percent of people who
were formerly incarcerated are unemployed. 32 Despite the active labor force within Georgia’s
general population reaching a 3.2 percent unemployment rate in September 33 and nearly
31,000 fewer Georgians in the active labor force compared to pre-pandemic, formerly
incarcerated, active jobless workers often struggle to find stable, livable employment.
Unless specified by law, Georgia courts can impose a fine up to $100,000 as a condition of
probation for felony offenses and a fine up to $1,000 for misdemeanor offenses, which include
traffic violations. 34 As one of at least ten states 35 that allow local governments to contract with
private probation companies to collect fines and fees from Georgians with debts associated with
misdemeanor cases, Georgia extracted over $120 million by 2015 in annual fines through these
for-profit companies, 36 and likely dozens or hundreds of millions more as of now. Private
probation companies, which supervise nearly 80 percent of Georgia’s 200,000 misdemeanor
probationers, have their collection practices shielded from public accountability, as the General
Assembly specifically exempted them from Georgia’s Open Records Act in 2006. 37

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There are several state provisions, not limited to those following, that offer few to no protections
for Georgians in deep poverty charged with court debt and limit fiscal alternatives for local
governments: 38
•
•

•

•

•
•

•

Georgia does not firmly cap its municipal governments’ fines and fee revenue. 39
The state allows broad discretion for municipal courts to enact charters and codes which
may then be used to enact ordinances against harmless or vaguely defined conduct and
then enforce those provisions to raise revenue. 40
Municipalities are allowed to budget for future revenue obtained through fines and fees
collected by municipal courts, leaving law enforcement or courts vulnerable to pressure
to prioritize revenue raising over public safety or justice. 41
Municipalities can choose between property, sales or income tax to raise revenue, 42 but
Georgia excludes most services from its sales tax, a missed opportunity to pursue more
equitable revenue sources. 43
Georgia has no specific provision that protects municipalities from having to provide
public services through unfunded state mandates. 44
State law fails to require municipal courts to function independently of their
corresponding legislative or executive branches, leaving them vulnerable to influence or
pressure to prioritize fines and fee revenue over justice or public safety. 45
State law requires or permits not releasing an already suspended driver’s license until
fines and fees are fully paid, endangering employment needed to pay debt obligations
and maintain economic stability. 46

Abusive Practices and Destructive Outcomes
Georgia’s fines and fees structure has led to abusive practices across county governments,
which are only partially funded by the state, as well as municipal governments, which receive no
state funding at all. These practices have led to destructive outcomes for countless vulnerable
Georgians who already struggle to manage and afford necessities in a pandemic that has been
most unforgiving to families with low incomes. Research has also found an association between
negative health outcomes and criminal legal system involvement that involves those who are
found guilty and not guilty, 47 as well as those who are not charged with a crime. 48 Placing
unpayable debts on unprotected people with low incomes is much the equivalent of taking blood
from a stone. While used figuratively in this policy brief, there have been instances in states
offering wide latitude to local judges, where blood was literally suggested to defendants in
poverty as payment for court debt. 49
Georgians in deep poverty who face court fines and fee debt do not have the financial options or
protections that are available with other forms of unpaid debt. Unlike personal loans or credit
card debt, they cannot be removed through bankruptcy, despite the potential credit damage. 50
Unlike for those with a delinquent sub-prime mortgage, there are no options akin to forbearance,
short-sale or foreclosure to manage or remove the debt. When someone is charged with a legal
financial obligation that may initially total to a small amount, it can quickly add up, leading to
hundreds or thousands of dollars in accumulated debt that is unaffordable.
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Georgians with unpaid court debt face the potential issuance of arrest warrants for nonpayment;
criminal court hearings; additional fines and court surcharges; detention in jail and a criminal
record. Although debtors’ prisons were declared unconstitutional in the Supreme Court’s
Bearden vs. Georgia decision, Georgia courts still manage to incarcerate people for not paying
those debts.
Recent research found disparate financial harms to Black felony probationers, who ended up
owing an average of $87 more in outstanding balances than other racial groups, 51 which may
reflect systemic economic barriers tied to race that caused more delayed payments and greater
added fees and surcharges. And because criminal justice and court debt appear on credit
reports, this can potentially inform employers of someone’s criminal history, despite state
lawmakers’ past and current efforts to “ban the box,” or enact laws that require that employers
remove criminal-history questions from applications for employment. 52
Creating adequate statewide measures to ensure that local jurisdictions offer reasonable and
accessible due process protections for Georgians in deep poverty can lead to higher collection
rates and reduce the health, economic and social hardships that disproportionately fall on Black
and Hispanic residents. Empirical research 53 has shown that localities with the most aggressive
fines and fees practices, on average, have the highest population shares of Black residents. As
such, they are likely overrepresented among countless numbers of Georgians that are
sentenced to probation for inability to immediately pay LFOs that are charged for minor
infractions. In 2012, 648 courts assigned more than 250,000 cases to private probation
companies, many of which were likely to be for failure to immediately pay court debt. 54 And
among felony defendants, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) data 55 has shown that more than
80 percent of them are in deep poverty.
While the experiences of impoverished Georgians who face the criminal legal system may be
unique, their hardships are all highly severe. Their encounters may play out like another
common scenario described below:
After receiving a traffic ticket, a Georgian experiencing poverty is unable to go to court because
they could not miss work, and in turn, their driver’s license is suspended. Like 42 percent of
people whose licenses are suspended, this Georgian loses their job because they can no longer
get to work. Later on, they appear in a follow-up court date, get their case adjudicated, but
cannot immediately pay off their fines, fees and surcharges. They cannot get on a payment plan
but were offered pay-only probation as their only way to pay in installments. They are placed on
probation for one year and charged $35 per month for probation costs (even though they are not
seeing a probation officer). Though the $35 probation fee can only be charged for three of the
months a client is on probation, the $105 added to their bill makes it that much harder to pay
everything off. As they look for a job, they now face another barrier as an individual on
probation. The client eventually is able to pay off their fines, fees and surcharges, goes to DDS
after saving more money, and pays the reinstatement fee and gets their license back. The client
gets a new job, but like 88 percent of people who lose their job due to a suspended license,
their new job pays less than the job they had pre-suspension. 56
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On a broader level, municipal and county governments committing abusive fines and fees
practices immediately before and during the COVID pandemic have added another layer of
economic distress to vulnerable Georgians, who have already faced a disproportionate share of
health, economic and psychological hardship while being the slowest to experience recovery.
While the national average for fines and fee revenue shares among total revenues, excluding
public utilities and intergovernmental transfers, is 2 percent, 57 several local governments in
Georgia rely on and collect significantly higher shares of fines and fees, 58 as found in local
finance documents provided by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.
Moreover, many of these governments are in counties or municipalities with low median
household incomes, high shares of Georgians of color and high shares of immigrant
populations. This analysis aligns with more comprehensive statistical studies, which include
data from more than 9,000 cities, finding that those with larger black populations rely more on
fines and court fees to raise revenue. The average collection was about $8 per person for all
cities that get at least some revenue from fines and fees, but that rose to as much as $20 per
person in the cities with the highest Black populations. These findings persisted even after
controlling for other factors, such as differences in crime rates and the size of cities. 59
Four of nine Georgia counties that had near 10 percent or more of their revenue from fines and
fees in 2019 or 2020 have a median household income that falls below the 25th percentile of all
counties in the state. 60 At least two of those nine counties raised their share of fines and fees
revenue during the pandemic, suggesting that Georgians in poverty with possibly alreadycrippling pandemic hardships were more likely to face either more frequent and/or higher fine
and fee amounts to pay for public services that should be funded by all residents. 61
Because of systemic policies and racial biases that perpetuate gaps across income and wealth,
Georgians of color are likely to earn low incomes, which disproportionately place them at higher
risk of living in communities that rely on abusive levels of fines and fees revenue. Additionally, of
the 27 counties that increased their share of fines and fee revenue during the pandemic, 12 of
them had shares that were higher than 36 percent Black, significantly higher than the overall 33
percent state share of Black Georgians. 62 Nine of those twelve counties had Black populations
at least 40 percent or greater, while 3 of those 12 had Black populations greater than 50
percent. 63

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Fines & Fees Disparities

Black Population Share by County

D

0%- 19%

-

20% -35%

-

36% -73%

Counties with FY2020 Fines &
Fees Revenue Share Increases

0
0
0

0.10% - 0.30%

•

1.00%+

0.40% - 0.60%
0.70% - 0.90%

Source: GBPI Analysis of GA Department of Community Affairs finance data and ACS 5-year data.

Immigrant communities have also faced disproportionate shares of fines and fee abuse from
municipal governments. Among the top 50 immigrant-populated cities in Georgia, in FY 2019,
twenty-four had fines and fees revenue that were higher than the national average, which is 2
percent of total local revenue. 64 In FY 2020, nineteen had fines and fees revenue shares that
were higher than the national average. 65 At least thirteen had shares that were at least 5
percent, or more than double the national average. Eight cities had shares that were at least 10
percent of total municipal revenue. 66 Three of those eight had shares that were more than 25
percent. And five of the top 50 immigrant-populated cities raised their shares of court debt
revenue during the pandemic. 67
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These data paint a broad picture of fines and fees abuse that is much similar to that which is
disproportionately imposed on non-immigrant Black communities, in which localities fill budget
gaps through the cruel overreliance on low-income immigrant households facing the criminal
legal system, and institute racially, ethnically or culturally biased citation practices that are
disguised as safety needs. These harmful practices are problematic in many Georgia cities,
including Clarkston and Doraville. 68
Ultimately, state governing choices have led to Georgia being one of the worst states for fines
and fee practices. This ranking is consistent with a 2017 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights
report 69—spurred by law enforcement atrocities and fines and fees practices in Ferguson,
Missouri—that found that Georgia cities were disproportionately represented in the top 10 of all
U.S. cities in fines and fees revenue as a percentage of all revenue. Several Georgia counties
and municipalities rely on fines and fee revenue shares that are even larger than those in
Ferguson, and just like Ferguson, widen gaps in public trust among everyday Georgians. These
practices not only violate the fundamental public finance concepts of an equitably shared
responsibility for funding government but perpetuate long-established barriers to economic
prosperity for Georgians of color.

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
Simply put, the constructs of Georgia’s fines and fees system are racist. They maintain a
spiraling prison of debt that often traps Georgia’s most economically vulnerable individuals and
families, which fall along the fault lines of race and ethnicity, and exacerbate historic inequities
across those same lines. The multitude of harmful effects are much akin to those of the slavery
and sharecropping periods of Georgia’s past. They are also part of a failing revenue structure
that harms the economic vitality of local governments, too often cornering them to rely on
revenue from those who cannot pay, therefore increasing costs paid by the public when local
courts jail and punish defendants for simply being poor.
These practices inflict long-term, if not permanent, damage to a segment of Georgia’s workforce
that could otherwise be significant players in local and statewide economic growth. To change
this trajectory, state and local policymakers must realize that racial equity and revenue
generation are not mutually exclusive. Better safeguards that mutually protect people and the
functioning of local and state government, can begin at the state level by:
•
•

•
•

Firmly capping local government fines and fee revenue.
Creating racial and ethnic equity guidelines for local ordinance creation, including
standards that ensure that localities take formal steps to gather public input from diverse
racial and ethnic populations, particularly for localities that do not have political
representation that reflects the diverse communities that they govern.
Requiring counties and municipalities to provide data on how much uncollected fine and
fee debt is owed, to better access the costs and effectiveness of collection efforts.
Expanding the state sales tax to include taxation on a larger range of services, which
can incentivize local governments to end the harmful practice of budgeting for fines and
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•

•

•

•

fees revenue that often leads to aggressive citation and collection practices that widen
racial and ethnic inequities.
Enabling provisions that protect local governments from state mandates that are not
accompanied with corresponding funding, which will remove pressures and incentives to
heavily rely on fines and fees revenue.
Prioritizing state funding to ensure that local courts have training that allows municipal
government branches to function independently and utilize checks and balances that
maintain a prioritization of justice over revenue.
Reducing the number of fines and fees that are charged, which can reduce hardships for
Georgians experiencing poverty, as well as the reliance on this form of revenue to fund
courts and public services.
Ending the requirement of full payment of fines and fees before releasing the suspension
of a driver’s license.

By maintaining the status quo, state lawmakers would be making a harmful choice, foregoing a
necessary reimagining of how state and local governments can generate revenue and protect
low-income Georgians from lifelong hardships because of abusive fine and fee practices.
Continuing to ignore these harms will only uphold a significant part of an unjust criminal legal
system, deepen longstanding public distrust, continue historic and disparate harms to
Georgians of color, perpetuate recidivism by trapping a largely untapped workforce into
unemployment or underemployment and bar countless Georgians from prosperity.

Endnotes
Sibilla, N. (2019, August 29). Nearly 600 Towns Get 10% Of Their Budgets (or More) From Court Fines. Forbes.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicksibilla/2019/08/29/nearly-600-towns-get-10-of-their-budgets-or-more-from-courtfines/?sh=6e1dab554c99
2 Menendez, M., Crowley, M., Eisen, L., Atchison, N. (2019) The Steep Cost of Criminal Justice Fees and Fines: A
Fiscal Analysis of Three States and Ten Counties. Brennan Center For Justice. Pg. 6.
3 Ibid, pg. 6
1

See https://www.courttrax.org/legislation.asp for a list of various Georgia legislation that pertain to fines and
fees assessment and collection.
4

Establishing the Georgia Colony, 1732-1750. Library of Congress. Last Retrieved on November 8, 2021, from
https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/colonial-settlement-16001763/georgia-colony-1732-1750/
6 The New South and The New Slavery: Convict Labor in Georgia. Digital Library of Georgia. Last Retrieved on
November 8, 2021, from https://georgia-exhibits.galileo.usg.edu/spotlight/convict-labor/feature/the-convict-leasesystem
7 Bannon, A., Nagrecha, M., Diller, R. (2010) Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry. Brennan Center for Justice,
pg. 19
8 Kanso, D. (2021). Reimagining Revenue: How Georgia’s Tax Code Contributes to Racial and Economic Inequality.
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Pg. 5. Last accessed 10/24/2021
9 Office of Georgia’s Secretary of State. Register To Vote: Online Voter Registration Application webpage. Last
retrieved on November 8, 2021, from https://sos.ga.gov/index.php/Elections/register_to_vote
10 Research from The Fortune Society, Criminal Justice Debt: Costs and Consequences, surveyed New York state
residents with court debt, suggests debtors in poverty in other states share similar responses when faced with
impossible debt choices.
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Boggs, M., Worthy, W. (2016). Report of the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. Pg. 28. Last accessed
on 10/26/2021
12 Angel, S. (2021, January 25). Green Light Georgia Driver’s Licenses For All Immigrants. Georgia Budget and
Policy Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://gbpi.org/green-light-georgia-drivers-licenses-forall-immigrants/
13 Transportation Rankings: Measuring the Quality of State Transportation Infrastructure. U.S. News. Last retrieved
on November 11, 2021, from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/rankings/infrastructure/transportation
14 (Georgia Justice Project, common client scenario provided via personal email communication, October 28, 2021).
15 University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government. (September 2021). Georgia Criminal Justice Data
Landscape Report: Criminal Court System. Last Retrieved on November 8, 2021, from
https://cviog.uga.edu/_resources/documents/publications/cj-courts-supplement-0921.pdf
16 Ibid, page 3.
17 Ibid, page 5.
18
Geraghty, S. (2016). Keynote Remarks: How The Criminalization of Poverty Has Become Normalized in American
Culture and Why You Should Care. Michigan Journal of Race and Law. Last retrieved on November 10, 2021, from
https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=mjrl
19 Hodson. S. (2020, October 3). Appeals Court Ruling Could Extend Rights to Probationers Supervised by Probation
Companies. The Augusta Chronicle. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://www.augustachronicle.com/story/news/2020/10/03/appeals-court-ruling-could-extend-rights-to-probationerssupervised-by-private-companies/114782864/
20 Masiag, M. (2019, August 20). Addicted to Fines: Small Towns in Much of the Country Are Dangerously Dependent
on Punitive Fines and Fees. Governing. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://www.governing.com/archive/local-governments-high-fine-revenues-by-state.html.
21 Bannon, A. Nagrecha, M. Diller, R. (2010) Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry. Brennan Center for Justice.
Last retrieved on November 8, 2021, from https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_CriminalJustice-Debt-%20A-Barrier-Reentry.pdf. page 13
22 Ibid, page 22
23 Ibid, page 25
24 Kanso, D. (2021). Reimagining Revenue: How Georgia’s Tax Code Contributes to Racial and Economic Inequality.
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Pages 11-21. Last accessed 10/24/2021
25 Owens, S. (2019, October 10). Education in Georgia’s Black Belt: Policy Solutions to Help Overcome a History of
Exclusion. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://gbpi.org/educationin-georgias-black-belt/; Camardelle, A. (2021, October 7). Principles to Support Black Workers in the Workforce
Innovation and Opportunity Act. Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Last retrieved on November 11,
2021, from https://jointcenter.org/principles-to-support-black-workers-in-the-workforce-innovation-and-opportunityact/; Kanso, D. (2021, October 6). Reimagining Revenue: How Georgia’s Tax Code Contributes to Racial and
Economic Inequality. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://gbpi.org/reimagining-revenue-how-georgias-tax-code-contributes-to-racial-and-economic-inequality/; Khalfani,
R. (2021, June 24). Why Scaling Back Unemployment Insurance Could Harm Recovery. Georgia Budget and Policy
Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://gbpi.org/why-scaling-back-unemployment-insurancecould-harm-recovery/; Camardelle, A. (2020, October 1). Cash Matters: Reimagining Anti-Racist TANF Policies in
Georgia. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://gbpi.org/cashmatters-reimagining-anti-racist-tanf-policies-georgia/
26 Kim, A. (2018, August 22). When Cities Rely on Fines and Fees, Everybody Loses. Governing. Last retrieved on
November 8, 2021, from https://www.governing.com/archive/gov-court-fees-fines-debt.html
27 GBPI analysis of Georgia Office of Planning and Budget (OPB) documents from House Bill 31 from FY 2020 and
House Bill 81 from FY 2022.
28 Khalfani, R. (2021, April 20). State of Working Georgia: Pandemic Job Numbers Are Improving, But Inequitably.
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://gbpi.org/state-of-workinggeorgia-pandemic-job-numbers-are-improving-but-inequitably/
29 Grover, M. (2021, June 11). What A $400 Emergency Expense Tells Us About the Economy. Federal Reserve
Bank of Minneapolis. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://www.minneapolisfed.org/article/2021/what-a400-dollar-emergency-expense-tells-us-about-the-economy
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30 GBPI analysis of CPS microdata. Q3 2021 unemployment rates for Black women and men were 4.8 and 4.4
percent, respectively, while white women and men were at 2.6 and 3.5 percent, respectively. Q3 2021
underemployment rates for Black women and men were 11.9 and 10.6 percent respectively, while white women and
men were at 7.6 and 7.4 percent, respectively. The unemployment and underemployment rate analysis is based on
IPUMS Current Population Survey (CPS) microdata, which produces slightly different numbers for some months than
state employment statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that also incorporate other sources;
however, the CPS microdata are the only timely and publicly-available source for disaggregated state-level
employment data.
31 Economic Policy Institute (June 2021). Reforming Unemployment Insurance: Stabilizing A System in Crisis and
Laying the Foundation for Equity. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://files.epi.org/uploads/ReformingUnemployment-Insurance.pdf
32 Research findings provided in the Second Chance Act of 2007. Last retrieved on November 9, 2021, from
https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-110publ199/html/PLAW-110publ199.htm
33
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economic News Release. State Employment and Unemployment, Table 1: Civilian labor
force and unemployment by state and selected area, seasonally adjusted. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://www.bls.gov/news.release/laus.t01.htm
34 Shannon, S. (2020, July 8). Probation and Monetary Sanctions in Georgia: Evidence From A Multi-Method Study.
Volume 54, Issue 4. Georgia Law Review, 54(2), Page 1217. Last retrieved on November 8, 2021, from
https://www.georgialawreview.org/article/13664-probation-and-monetary-sanctions-in-georgia-evidence-from-a-multimethod-study
35 Alarid, L., Schloss, C. (2007) Standards in the Privatization of Probation Services: A Statutory Analysis. Criminal
Justice Review, 32 (233). 233. Last retrieved on November 8, 2021,
fromhttp://cjr.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/32/3/233
36 Kanso, D. (2021). Reimagining Revenue: How Georgia’s Tax Code Contributes to Racial and Economic Inequality.
Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. pg. 22
37 Georgia General Assembly. (2006). Senate Bill 44, page 11, line 17. Latest text last retrieved on November 9,
2021, from https://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/14115
38 Carpenter, D., Menjou, M., Pochkhanawala, R. (2020, April 30). Municipal Fines and Fees: A 50-State Survey of
State Laws. Institute for Justice. Last retrieved on November 8, 2021, from https://ij.org/report/fines-and-fees-home
39 Legal analysis from Institute for Justice report from April 30, 2020, under Category B3 of “Category Ranks”, finding
that Georgia has no statutory code mandating that a percentage of a municipality’s budget must come from revenue
sources other than fines and fees. Some of the most striking examples of municipal overreliance on fines and fees in
FY 2020, found through GBPI analysis of local finance data from Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA),
were Warwick, GA with 74 percent of its revenue from fines and fees; Dillard, GA with 33 percent and Resaca, GA
with 31 percent.
40 Legal analysis from Institute for Justice report from April 30, 2020, under Category A1 of “Category Ranks” section,
finding Georgia’s statutory code allows for local governing frameworks that could justify citation practices influenced
by monetary and/or anti-Black, anti-Hispanic or anti-immigrant sentiment, similar to what a federal DOJ investigation
found in Ferguson, MO citation practices in 2013.
41 Legal analysis from Institute for Justice report from April 30, 2020, under Category B1 of “Category Ranks” section.
Furthermore, budgeting for future fines and fines revenue can create or embolden aggressive enforcement and
collection practices among local governments and private probation companies seeking to meet revenue quotas.
42 Legal analysis from Institute for Justice report from April 30, 2020, under Category B2 of “Category Ranks” section.
43 Cash-strapped local governments with limited revenue raising options are more likely to use private probation
companies to collect court debts as a means of reducing collection spending on court clerk and public probation staff.
44 Legal analysis from Institute for Justice report from April 30, 2020, under Category B6 of “Category Ranks” section.
Under current statutory law, if Georgia requires municipalities to furnish new or additional services without
corresponding funding, municipalities can face greater fiscal stress and pressure them to turn to levying greater fines
and fees on people.
45 Ibid, under Category B7 of “Category Ranks” section. Because current state law does not require full judicial
independence at the local level, a mayor or city council member could influence judicial fines and fee practices
because of their power to appoint or remove judges.

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46 Ibid, under Category D1 of “Category Ranks” section. Driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines, fees or
child support can make it hard for Georgians to hold down a job, access basic necessities and heighten the barriers
for people to pay their court debt.
47 North Carolina State University. (2019, September 9). How the Justice System Can Affect Physical, Mental Health.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/09/190909113025.htm
48 Fernandes, A. (2019, August 24). How Far Up The River? Criminal Justice Contact and Health Outcomes. Sage
Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2329496519870216
49 Robertson, C. (2015, October 19). For Offenders Who Can’t Pay, It’s A Pint of Blood or Jail Time. The New York
Times. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/20/us/for-offenders-who-cantpay-its-a-pint-of-blood-or-jail-time.html
50 Bannon, A., Diller, R., Nagrecha, M. (2010). Criminal Justice Debt : A Barrier to Reentry. Brennan Center for
Justice. 2. Last retrieved on November 9, 2021 from https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/201908/Report_Criminal-Justice-Debt-%20A-Barrier-Reentry.pdf
51
Sarah Shannon. (2020) Probation and Monetary Sanctions in Georgia: Evidence From A Multi-Method Study.
Volume 54, Issue 4. Georgia Law Review. Pp 1225-1226. Last accessed 10/28/2021
52 Mauer, R. (2018, November 12). ‘Ban the box’ turns 20: What employers need to know. Society for Human
Resource Management. https://www.shrm.org/about-shrm/Pages/default.aspx
53 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (September 2017). Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color.
https://www.usccr.gov/files/pubs/2017/Statutory_Enforcement_Report2017.pdf
54 Albin-Lackey, C. (2014). Profiting From Probation: America’s Offender-Funded Probation Industry. Human Rights
Watch. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/us0214_ForUpload_0.pdf
55 Harlow, C. (November 2000). Defense Council in Criminal Cases: Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. U.S.
Department of Justice. Last retrieved on November 10, 2021, from https://bjs.ojp.gov/content/pub/pdf/dccc.pdf
56 (Georgia Justice Project, common client scenario provided via personal email communication, October 28, 2021).
57 Sibilla, N. (2019, August 29). Nearly 600 Towns Get 10% Of Their Budgets (or More) From Court Fines. Forbes.
https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicksibilla/2019/08/29/nearly-600-towns-get-10-of-their-budgets-or-more-from-courtfines/?sh=6e1dab554c99
58 Carpenter II, D. (October 2019). The Price of Taxation by Citation: Case Studies of Three Georgia Cities That Rely
Heavily on Fines and Fees. Institute for Justice. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://ij.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/10/Taxation-by-Citation-FINAL-USE.pdf
59 Lopez, G. (2017, July 7). Study: Cities Rely More on Fines For Revenue If They Have More Black Residents. Vox.
Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/7/7/15929196/police-fines-studyracism
60 GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Community Affairs local finance data and American Community Survey
(ACS) 2019 5-year data. GBPI reconciled county finance data from FY 2019 and FY 2020 with the latest county-level
median household income data from the ACS.
61 Ibid.
62 GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Community Affairs local finance data and American Community Survey
(ACS) 2019 5-year data. GBPI reconciled county finance data from FY 2019 and FY 2020 with the latest county-level
Black population shares from the ACS.
63 Ibid.
64 GBPI analysis of Georgia Department of Community Affairs local finance data and American Community Survey
(ACS) 2019 5-year data. GBPI reconciled county finance data from FY 2019 and FY 2020 with the latest county-level
immigrant population shares from the ACS.
65 Ibid.
66 Ibid.
67 Ibid.
68 Stafford, L. (2019, October 23). Study Says Clarkston, Morrow, Riverdale Using Fees to Pad Budgets. Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. Last retrieved on November 17, 2021, from https://www.ajc.com/news/local/study-saysclarkston-morrow-riverdale-using-fees-pad-budgets/V5tgjKlE6HyP7lK1VzfdaP/; Sacchetti, M. (2021, February 12).
Without Citizenship, Many Latinos in this Atlanta Suburb Stay Silent. Washington Post. Last retrieved on November
17, 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/02/12/latino-immigrants-doraville-atlanta-parking-rules/
69 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (September 2017). Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color: Civil
Rights and Constitutional Implications. Last retrieved on November 11, 2021, from
https://www.usccr.gov/files/pubs/2017/Statutory_Enforcement_Report2017.pdf

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