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Richmond, VA—Virginians with lived experience; elected officials including Delegates Price, Cousins, Jones, and Hernandez; Senator Williams-Graves; and advocates from the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC), The Commonwealth Institute, New Virginia Majority, Nolef Turns, and the Fines & Fees Justice Center (FFJC), spoke in support of current and future efforts to reform Virginia’s court debt system. 

These efforts are aimed fixing some key problems with how court debt is assigned, managed, and collected including:  

  • Judges must bill many Virginians—who got court-appointed attorneys or public defenders precisely because they couldn’t afford an attorney—for their representation.  
  • Many Virginia courts lack safeguards to ensure that people living off Social Security benefits are not deprived of those benefits (in violation of federal protections) or threatened for nonpayment.  
  • Unpaid court debt is sent to collection after only 90 days. 
  • People who want to pay off court debt through work during incarceration face inconsistent practices about whether such work will be credited and at what rate, if any. 
  • Virginians who struggle with court debt face that debt hanging over their heads for up to sixty (60) years—far longer than other debt in Virginia, and far longer than court debt in most states.    
  • Judges have no discretion to forego billing indigent Virginians for court fees and costs 

Several bills are currently making their way through the 2024 Virginia General Assembly to begin to address these issues including HB824 (Cousins), SB625 (Bagby) and HB896 (Hernandez), SB654 (Williams-Graves), HB614 (Price), and SB514 (Williams Graves) and HB857 (Hernandez).  

“Virginia’s policies around criminal legal system fines and fees are unfair, and a stumbling block for people who’ve been involved in the system,” said Hassan Shabazz“From my case, I had over $4,000 in costs. About $650 of that came from me getting charged for a court-appointed attorney—something I needed only because I didn’t have the funds to hire a private lawyer in the first place. Then, when I was in prison, I had to work down the debts while getting paid 45 cents an hour.” 

“My bill, HB 896, is common sense legislation that aims to protect Social Security benefits from being taken to pay court debts, where those benefits are an individual’s only source of income,” said Delegate Phil Hernandez. “The bill ensures conformity with federal law and will establish a clear process to help the courts protect social security benefits – which are intended to help people pay for food, housing, and the necessities of life.” 

“For far too long the General Assembly has been hyper-focused on making the criminal justice system overly punitive, unnecessarily harsh, and unfair for Virginians who encounter it,” said Senator Angelia Williams Graves. “Commonsense measures like ensuring Virginians aren’t burdened with court costs 60 years after their interaction with the judicial system and ensuring that debt cannot be sent to collections while someone is incarcerated makes our system more rehabilitative than ever before — and that is what we should strive for.” 

“We must recognize that the imposition of excessive court fines and fees can have long-lasting consequences for incarcerated Virginians and their families, often pushing them deeper into financial instability and preventing successful reentry into society” commented Delegate Rae Cousins. “This year, I carried legislation to eliminate court appointed attorney fees for indigent defendants, and I remain committed to fighting for reforms to our court debt system.”  

“If we really want people to reenter society and have any chance at changing their lives, we have to give them that opportunity.  Allowing more time to pay back their fines and fees prior to incurring collections fees and allowing their community service and work while incarcerated to help offset their court debt are just two of the ways we can help,” Delegate Price said. “We cannot expect people to transition successfully if the system itself continues to hold them back, demand more of their money, and hamstring their efforts to move on with their lives.  I’m proud to stand with my Democratic colleagues and justice partners to share about the actions we are taking and the ways we all can support our fellow Virginians as they rejoin our communities and find hope, encouragement, and opportunity.” 

“It can be easy to overlook the many subtle ways our criminal justice system inflicts harm,” Delegate Jones said. “For instance, defendants who are sentenced to fines or restitution are often unaware of the full amount of these obligations and can face repercussions for nonpayment without even realizing they are in arrears, which can threaten to derail their lives and endanger their livelihoods. My bill will require courts to provide defendants with an itemized list of all fines, fees, and restitution they owe. This will create much-needed transparency and ensure defendants are fully aware of their obligations before they are faced with burdensome and unnecessary penalties.” 

“If we hope that our system offers any form of rehabilitation we cannot tie people to it for a lifetime through debts,” said Maisie Osteen, senior attorney for Legal Aid Justice Center.  
“Due to the need for substantial reform to our current process of assessing, administering, and collecting court debt we are grateful that these lawmakers are committed to working towards a more just system.” 

“Our legal system should allow people to grow beyond their mistakes, rather than trap them in a lifelong cycle of poverty,” said Emily King, Senior Policy Analyst at The Commonwealth Institute. “Making practical and meaningful changes to court-imposed fines and fees would help make sure the court system is not funded off the backs of those with the least ability to pay. These bills are critical steps in the right direction and will help more people in Virginia escape poverty and have greater economic opportunity.” 
“These bills work towards reforming our system of fines and fees and move us closer to a truly just Virginia. We must take every opportunity to end policies that further punish poverty and create cycles of debt that follow Virginians long after their case ends,” said Dominique Martin from New Virginia Majority

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