Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Announces Policy To Reduce Court Debt Collection Fees That Disproportionately Affect Community Members of Color, in Poverty
NORFOLK, Va. – On Tuesday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi announced that, as of July 1, 2023, he has transferred the responsibility for collecting outstanding court debt from the private sector to the Virginia Department of Taxation. This change marks another step the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney has taken to fulfill the office’s promise of bolstering public safety while acknowledging and addressing poverty traps in the local justice system, which only serve to perpetuate cycles of crime.
By law, Commonwealth’s Attorneys must make a choice every year on what method to collect outstanding court debt, which includes fines and court costs. That debt, by state law, carries a minimum annual interest rate of 17% if collected by the Department of Taxation. For many years, the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office was part of a minority of localities who hired the services of a private collections firm. Norfolk’s previous collections contract carried an annual interest rate of 22.5%.
Tuesday’s announcement was made in tandem with the Office of the Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney (the Hon. Buta Biberaj), which has also transitioned to collecting court debt through the Department of Taxation, as well as the Vera Institute of Justice and The Commonwealth Institute, which provided crucial research into the impact of collection fees in 2021.
According to The Commonwealth Institute, court debt collection fees are a minor source of revenue for Virginia. The fees in fiscal year 2019 generated the state treasury $757 million — mostly from land/deed transfers and other civil matters, not criminal cases which Commonwealth’s Attorney’s offices prosecute — amounting to less than 2% of Virginia’s $70 billion annual budget. Mandatory court costs on a low-level felony such as drug possession exceed $500 and can rise into the thousands of dollars for cases with multiple charges.
Furthermore, court debt collection fees often disadvantage communities of color, who are disproportionately more likely to be arrested and serve pre-trial detention. The Commonwealth Institute found that, in 2019, Black Virginians bore the burden of 33% of all traffic and criminal fees assessed statewide despite making up 19% of the state population. Compared to the statewide average of $82 per capita assessed in court fines and fees, an average of $147 (a 79% increase) per capita was assessed in courts serving cities and counties with higher shares of Black residents and an average of $106 (a 29% increase) was assessed in courts serving cities and counties with higher shares of impoverished people.
Trapping the most disadvantaged members of a community into cycles of crime and poverty risks the safety and livelihood of everyone. The Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is proud to have taken this step to lower the fines that everyone in the criminal justice system must face.
“Mandatory court costs are taxes on the poor that fall not just on people convicted of crimes but on their parents, spouses, and children,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi. “These court costs are unfair, criminalize poverty, and create debt traps. While I cannot waive court costs or change the 17% interest that state law requires the Commonwealth to impose, I can and have reduced that interest rate to the lowest possible number. Tax collection is a core government function, and we should use the government to carry it out. I will continue to advocate in the General Assembly for a sliding scale of court costs that spare indigent people from these unfair burdens.”
Read the original news release by The Commonwealth Institute, the Vera Institute, and the offices of the Norfolk and Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorneys here: https://thecommonwealthinstitute.org/newsroom/two-commonwealths-attorneys-announce-policy-to-reduce-court-debt-collection-fees/