New RI law eliminates criminal court costs for those unable to pay
On June 27, Governor McKee signed into law 2022-H7695 and 2022-S2774, which remove all state court fees, assessments, and costs for people convicted of criminal offenses who meet the criteria for indigent status (inability to pay), as well as those who spend more than 30 days in prison.
Income Evaluation at Sentencing
At the time of sentencing on a criminal offense, a judge must ask the defendant if they are low-income. Defendants will not have to pay court fines and fees if a judge determines that they are indigent (unable to pay). Judges will generally consider someone unable to pay if they receive public benefits: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) or Rhode Island Works, Social Security including Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and State Supplemental Payments programs, disability insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or another form of public assistance.
People who are not receiving public benefits, but have limited income and will find it difficult to pay court fines and fees, can also apply for the judge to waive them—in whole or in part—under the new law.
Eliminating Existing Debt
This bill will not automatically erase pre-existing (already assessed) unpaid court costs, assessments, and fees for those determined to be indigent, but you can ask a judge to have your fines reduced or erased by going to the clerk’s office and asking for an ability-to-pay hearing.
If you have court debt in Superior Court, you can schedule an ability-to-pay hearing, at which a Judge will determine if you are indigent and eligible to have your fines and fees remitted. To schedule a hearing, you may call 401-222-2084 during business hours, 8:30am-4pm Monday through Friday, or email CentralRegistry@courts.ri.gov. You are encouraged to bring a completed Financial Statement to your hearing. The form is here. If you cannot bring a form, the Court will have extra copies.
If you have court debt in District Court, you can contact your local District Court Clerk’s Office for more information. Addresses and phone numbers for each District Court are here.
The new law does not eliminate any restitution that was ordered to be paid as a result of a criminal conviction. If you have questions about restitution, you may contact the Office of the Rhode Island Public Defender, contact information here.
History of Fines and Fees in Rhode Island
A 2008 Rhode Island law allowed Superior and District Court judges to waive court fees for those unable to pay, but the new law makes that process automatic for indigent defendants. After passage of the 2008 law, judges failed to regularly determine individuals’ ability to pay court costs. For example, in 2015, judges only waived the costs of about three percent of those arrested for failing to pay their debt.
Unpaid court debt is a leading cause of imprisonment in Rhode Island. Based on data from the RI Department of Corrections, between January 2019 and September 2020, 7,000 people were held at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) for court debt-related causes, including 466 people who were detained more than once. Every time someone is admitted to the ACI, it disrupts their home and family life, employment and housing stability, and medical care, and adds a $125 warrant fee to their debt burden.
Debt-related incarceration also falls along racial and ethnic lines: a quarter (25%) of debt-related Adult Correctional Institute (ACI) admissions between January 2019 and September 2020 were among Black defendants (compared to 6% of Rhode Island’s population) and 20% were for Hispanic or Latina/o/e defendants (compared to 12% of the state’s population).
Meanwhile, studies in Rhode Island have shown that locking people up is not an effective way to collect court debt among those who can’t pay. Only 20%, or one-fifth, of individuals admitted to the ACI in 2015 for debt-related reasons paid their debts within six months.
By requiring the Court to hold ability-to-pay hearings for criminal defendants, Rhode Island is now in line with national best practices and recommendations, including those of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail Practices; and the American Bar Association.
The Rhode Island Center for Justice supported the passage of this legislation as part of a broad-based community coalition.
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