National Survey Reveals ‘Secret’ Mandatory Surcharges & Assessments Imposed in Every Traffic, Criminal, Local Court Case

A gavel on a stack of $100 bills on a table

A gavel on a stack of $100 bills on a table

By Paloma Sifuentes

WASHINGTON, DC- A new report created by the Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) – “Assessment and Surcharges: A 50-State Survey of Supplemental Fees,” reveals hidden taxes from criminal, traffic, and ordinal cases.

These taxes fund the justice system along with other government programs such as autism research, independent living programs and municipal general funds.

The report noted states have been using justice fees for years to raise revenue imposed by the criminal legal system, but the fees can be harmful for people solely because they are involved with the justice system.

The report calls these taxes “assessment and surcharges” and they are imposed on every case regardless of the sentence, offense or any specific circumstances. These assessments and surcharges can also be called administrative assessments, surcharges, court costs, privilege taxes, and docket fees by the courts. 

These assessments and surcharges are not only being used to fund court operations or administration, but are funding government agencies, programs, services, and research that have no connection to the justice system. 

Jeremiah Mosteller from Americans for Prosperity stated, “Fees are merely hidden taxes — a way for governments to collect more revenue from hardworking taxpayers without the ordinary transparency of traditional taxes.”

He added the government should fund the justice system, instead of “secretly” raising revenue in unsustainable and inconsistent ways. 

Judges will impose assessment and surcharges to individuals without any regard to whether they can afford to pay them. This leads to subjects of punishment such as, driver license suspension, incarceration, supervision, or additional fees. These assessments and surcharges made by the government and states to gain a lot of revenue mainly affect low income families. 

Courts and other programs that gain their revenue from these taxes can be left with unstable budgets as there can be a lack of reliability of the collections of these assessments and surcharges.

There are legislative reforms underway in some states to eliminate assessments and surcharges, the report said, noting since Oregon eliminated its “unitary assessment” in 2012 many states both red and blue have enacted similar reforms. Delaware has eliminated fees such as probation and parole fees, juvenile systems fees and public defense fees. 

Oklahoma Policy Institute’s David Gatley said, “It’s encouraging that policymakers in Oklahoma and across the country are taking a hard look at eliminating the widespread use of assessments and surcharges in the justice system.”

Assessment and Surcharge fees are not only in red states but in blue states as well, the report said, noting New York has one of the most burdensome mandatory surcharges. Lawmakers have introduced a legislation reform to end it. 

In California they continue to assess individuals a $100 fee as a “penalty assessment” for every $100 they are fined. 

FFJC’s policy and research director Tim Curry said, “Creating budgets and programs that are dependent on citations, arrests and convictions is literally banking on people violating the law — if crime goes down, so does the revenue needed to fund the government.”

There were key findings to the 50 state survey of assessment and surcharge:

  • 32 states have statutes that impose a fee that benefits court operations and provide revenue to a judicial fund or general court operating account. 
  • 19 states have statutes that impose a fee to generate revenue for the state or county general fund. 
  • 32 states and DC have a mandatory fee that benefits a victims compensation fund, even if it was a victimless crime. These fees can go as high as $10,000 per offense. 
  • 29 states have fees that generate revenue to programs unrelated to the justice system. Some of these programs include public financing of legislators’ campaigns, a volunteer ambulance fund, local law libraries, independent living programs, autism treatment and research, sheriff pension funds, civil legal services, and even a law enforcement officer hall of fame. 

The report said 29 states also generate revenue to justice related fees but that do not have any correlation to the defendant case such as DNA database maintenance, drug education programs, community corrections or county jail fees, police academies or police training, and a death penalty prosecution fund.

However there are two states with no laws imposing mandatory assessment or surcharge. These states are Idaho with no statutory fees imposed on all cases and Oregon, which eliminated its “unitary assessment” in 2012.

About The Author

Paloma Sifuentes is a Senior at California State University, Long Beach majoring in Criminal Justice. She plans on attending law school after she graduates with her bachelors degree in the spring of 2023. She is very passionate about Criminal Law and intends on working as an associates attorney in a law firm after law school.

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