Design for Justice: Traffic Tickets, Fines, and Fees

In Spring 2017, the Legal Design Lab will be ran a pop-up class at Stanford School to create new pilot projects that will make the legal system more empowering, fair, and accessible. Then over the course of Summer and Autumn 2017, the Lab worked on bringing the prototypes to higher resolution and running community testing of them.

Court fines and fees can have devastating effects on people — with small infractions or obligations spiraling into escalating debt, imprisonment, lost jobs, lost housing, and cycles of poverty.

Especially after the Department of Justice’s report on the local court’s practices in Ferguson, Missouri, which exposed their use of fines and fees to raise revenue at the expense of poor, minority community members, there has been growing pressure to change the system.

How do we make courts more fair, accessible, and empowering for people — especially when it comes to fines, fees, and bail?

Help us tackle 3 specific challenges, to create new prototypes to be piloted:

Empowering Individuals: How can we help defendants who don’t have a lawyer better know and use their rights?

Improving the Fairness of Courts: What kind of tool can we build for courts so they can more accurately, fairly determine if (and how much) people can pay when it comes to traffic fines?

Building a Holistic Service Network: How can we connect civil legal aid groups with criminal justice groups (and more) to create a network of support for individuals who are facing problems in multiple systems at the same time?


We are running the class and projects in collaboration with various legal partners, including the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA), the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), and the California Judicial Council.

Each of these groups have worked on analyzing how the money involved in people’s journey through the justice system — particularly regarding court fines, fees, and bail — have serious repercussions on the quality of justice people receive.

What we’ll do during the sprint

Building from these group’s observations and proposals, participants in the sprint will identify opportunities for making the justice system fairer and more user-friendly to those who use it, around fines, fees, and bail.

We work in small groups to scope and build new initiatives, that could then be piloted by our partners or others in the justice system. Each group began with a challenge brief that we have defined based on the highest needs and biggest opportunities.

Read our report of this first sprint.

Then, in May we will have a second sprint that will focus on testing, refinement, and final proposals back to our partners.

Our work will focus on three challenges — one centered on empowering people directly with rights and strategies, another on making courts more fair and efficient when assessing people’s ability to pay fines, and third about coordinating providers’ ability to serve people.

Challenge 1: Empowerment of People in the System

How do we help a person who is facing a misdemeanor or ticket (like a traffic ticket), but doesn’t automatically have a free lawyer (because they aren’t facing jail time), to better protect their own rights when dealing with the court?

This challenge grows out of the problem defendants have in protecting their own rights when representing themselves. They don’t know how to invoke their right to a hearing, in order to get their situation reviewed by a judge. They don’t know that they could possibly get a free lawyer to represent them, especially when they face punishment or loss of liberty because of outstanding fines.

We will design new ways to make individuals who are unrepresented to be strategic, aware, and empowered.

More resources:

  • The Department of Justice report that documents their investigation into how local municipal courts use fines and fees to build revenue rather than for public safety, with disproportionate impact on poor people and African-Americans.
  • The DOJ “Dear Colleague” letter that explains to courts what practices they should be following regarding fines and fees, to better comply with due process, equal protection, and sound public policy

Challenge 2: Smarter Assessments by the Court

How do we help courts make more efficient and fair assessments of people’s ability to pay fines in cases like traffic tickets, so that they do not overburden people with debt, interest, and imprisonment?

Currently, most courts do not take into account an individuals’ circumstances when assessing fines — and this can have a destructive impact on low-income people. When a person gets a traffic ticket and has to pay money to the courts to resolve it, how can we help the judge and the court make a better determination of whether the person can truly pay it? 

If we had a smarter tool to judge whether a person is able to pay traffic tickets, we might be able to stop these initial fines from compounding into larger debts and other penalties.

Here are some possible resources:

Challenge 3: Holistic System Support

How do we connect defense organizations with civil legal aid organizations, to help people overcome procedural barriers and provide holistic support to clients that cross criminal/civil lines?

The legal (and legal aid) systems are divided along this split between civil and criminal law, but people’s lives are not. A person’s civil legal problems can spiral into criminal legal ones (with unpaid fines in some cases leading to imprisonment or other criminal punishments). In many other cases, people are dealing simultaneously with issues in civil and criminal courts, but they don’t have services that help them deal with the issues holistically.

In this ambitious, systems-level challenge, we will design an intervention that could improve the ability of providers to work across these arbitrary divisions and provide more coordinated, intelligent support to people who are in the legal system.

  • a Webinar from NLADA that explains how fines and fees are used inequitably, and what strategies legal aid groups can use to protect people.

General Resources

Watch John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight report on how municipalities’ court fines and fees for small infractions (like traffic tickets or petty crimes) spiral into debt, loss of driver’s license, loss of cars and homes, and imprisonment

From the court’s perspective, there is a 2017 presentation from NACM (the National Center for Court Management) that summarizes the National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail


The National Center for State Courts has an interactive visual to let you explore states’ different practices on fines, fees, and bail

Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program has a Reform Builder tool that provides analytics on states and laws, to consider policy alternatives and see what the status quo is

Stopped, Fined, and Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California, an April 2016 report from the EBCLC about the racial injustices that accompany traffic stops and tickets.

The ACLU has a 2010 report on the imprisonment of people for failing to pay legal debts, called In for a Penny: the Rise of America’s New Debtors’ Prisons, with particular focus on Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, and Washington State

The EBCLC has a side-by-side map that shows how many driver’s licenses have been suspended, as compared to the poverty rate in that area — to show the link between suspensions and poverty

The Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail has collected international reports, from the UK, Australia, Scotland, and elsewhere to profile how other countries deal with fines, fees, and bail

Resources around Bail and Pretrial Release

Though we won’t take bail as one of the central issues of our sprint, there are many inter-related issues with bail and court fines and fees.

The Vera Institute of Justice presents a short video explanation of how the bail system and the fines and fees associated with it have major justice implications, especially for poor, black people

The Arnold Foundation has supported a Pretrial Risk Assessment Tool, the Public Safety Assessment to help judges assess a person’s likelihood of committing another crime or failing to appear at court, through the use of predictive data 

The Pretrial Justice Institute has an initiative, Smart Pretrial, to assess the risk of pretrial release, collect best practices, and provide training and tech assistance to those interested in making better assessments.

KQED has reports on proposals to limit cash bail in California, to stop punishing poor people for being poor.

 Human Rights Watch report, “Not Im It for the Justice” identifies the problems with California’s Pretrial Detention and Bail System, and the injustices it has on poor people who plead guilty to avoid detention.

See a video spotlighting some of the findings from the report:

Who are the key actors involved?

The federal Department of Justice, which has a suite of resources, guides, and grants to support the reform of local fines and fees practices

National Task Force on Fines, Fees, and Bail

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

Vera Institute for Justice

East Bay Community Law Center

Conference of Chief Justices

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, has a Criminal Justice Debt program that looks into how to address injustices regarding criminal justices fines and fees

Laura and John Arnold Foundation has been providing grant support for initiatives in this area

State Justice Institute also provides grants in this area

The Council of State Governments Justice Center has resources on Legal Financial Obligations, and a Repaying Debts guide

What will we build?

We will not specify the exact thing to be built during our sprint, though our partners and research will point to specific ideas that could be built out.

We also encourage a mix of projects that will focus on front-end experiences of litigants and defendants, as well as back-end, systems level changes.