Virginia’s criminal and traffic systems impose hundreds of millions of dollars each year in court debt, a combination of assessments that includes everything from fines to fees for court-appointed attorneys to the empaneling of juries. These systems disproportionately impact low-income people and people of color and drain resources from communities.
Legal Aid Justice Center does not directly handle criminal or traffic cases. But the financial assessments made in such cases often impacts people for years beyond sentencing. We work to reduce the impact and collateral consequences of that debt.
LAJC’s work has included:
- Ending the Virginia law that suspended the driver’s licenses for unpaid court debt, which was unconstitutional, counterproductive, and devastating for hundreds of thousands of low-income drivers and their families;
- Ending the Virginia law requiring incarceration for people driving on a suspended driver’s license, since many were suspended for unpaid court debt;
- Passing a law requiring Virginia courts to publish court debt payment plan policies and authoring two reports highlighting how widely the policies vary and frequently fall fail to adequately consider poverty; and
- Pushing for a temporary moratorium on the collection of fines and fees in the COVID-19 era.
Since our major success in our Drive Down the Debt campaign, which resulted in people no longer losing their licenses for unpaid court debt, we have been engaged in a series of listening sessions about court debt itself. We know that court debt is harming many people across the state and communities already bearing the heaviest burden of the criminal legal system. Since there are many parts of people’s lives that court debt affects, and different types of court debt, we embarked on these listening sessions to understand priorities for fines and fees reform identified by directly impacted people and communities.