Regressive Revenue Perpetuates Poverty: Why Georgia’s Fines and Fees Need Immediate Reform


Georgia is the number one jurisdiction in the world for percentage of population under correctional control.[1] This has less to do with protecting public safety and more to do with a state and local criminal legal system that criminalizes poverty. One mechanism by which the state of Georgia and its localities do this is by imposing costly fines and fees that hinder economic opportunities for people with low incomes, especially Black people with low incomes. Jurisdictions use fines and fees to pay for court operations, police departments and other services. Many Georgia counties and municipalities, collectively referred to as localities, rely heavily on fines and fees for revenue. By 2021, more than 300 of them balanced their budgets with revenues where fines and fees made up a share higher than the national average of two percent.[2] When a locality relies on fines and fees for at least ten percent of its total budget, based on analysis from Governing,[3] researchers consider those fines and fees high and abusive.[4] By this definition, at least 74 Georgia localities had high and abusive fines and fees levels by 2021. About 24,000 Georgians in poverty live in the localities with extreme fine and fee practices.

Some of the most egregious fines and fees practices occur at the municipal level since municipal courts, unlike county courts, receive no state funding for their operations, leaving many to exercise limited revenue options under already flawed local criminal legal systems. At its worst, fines and fees overreliance excessively extracts wealth from communities of color and communities with few resources. In 2015, the U.S. Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report on the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in 2014. The DOJ, which found a “pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department,” also discovered the majority-Black city relied on fines and fees to cover at least 20 percent of its total revenue.[5] Twenty-six Georgia localities either meet or surpass Ferguson’s 20 percent threshold or double the ten percent level above which researchers consider fines and fees high and abusive. Further, nine localities mirror Ferguson in fines and fees abuse and have Black populations significantly higher than the state average and Black poverty rates higher than the state average.

Unjust fines and fees reduce economic opportunity by creating impossible debt choices that cause people to fall deeper into the criminal legal system. They not only criminalize poverty by penalizing people with low incomes who cannot pay, but also reinforce poverty by reducing access to employment and workforce training. Localities have wide discretion on how they raise fines and fees revenues, allowing those governments to create systemically biased, revenue-seeking ordinances under the guise of public safety. In reality, reliance on fines and fees often leads to aggressive citation and collection practices that widen racial and ethnic inequities.[6]

For years, community leaders and nonprofit organizations have called for an end to forcible and profit-seeking taxation of people of color and people with low incomes through fines and fees. Despite this, Georgia lawmakers have continued to maintain these unjust practices, perpetuating what is known as “forcible taxation by citation.” Ultimately, Georgia lawmakers’ inaction continues to compromise economic security and safety for all Georgia communities and further erode the public’s trust in the criminal legal system. State lawmakers must end the practice of relying on low-income communities and their entanglement in the criminal legal system to finance a government that is duty-bound to serve everyone.

Glossary of Commonly Used Terms

Fine – A financial penalty levied by the criminal legal system to deter or punish someone, in response to a conviction or violation.

Fee – A financial charge levied on top of a fine, with the intent to raise revenue and shift the costs of local and state government operations away from typical revenue sources like taxes, and onto those who come into contact with the criminal legal system. While fines and fees are given in combination, Georgians may simply regard them as tickets or court-ordered obligations that they can afford to pay up front, or those that are unaffordable and have additional penalties.

Taxation by citation – A phrase used to describe when local governments prioritize raising revenue, through the enforcement of traffic and other ordinances, over their obligations to protect the public.

High and abusive – A term used to describe when a locality relies on fines and fees to fund at least ten percent of its government operations. This threshold signifies widespread fine and fee practices that abuse those who are most likely to face them – Georgians with low incomes. These practices are born from local leadership decisions to turn its criminal legal system actors into revenue collectors and include but are not limited to: 1) uncharacteristically high numbers of police stops, 2) judicial decisions that order Georgians with low incomes to either pay fines and fees that they cannot afford or face consequences and 3) court barriers to due process, legal representation or financial hardship waivers.

Private probation company – A for-profit, third-party authority within Georgia’s criminal legal system that manages pay-only probation for those convicted of misdemeanors. It contracts with local criminal legal system jurisdictions with the promise that jurisdictions will pay nothing for these private services because all probation supervision costs will be covered by fees charged to those under supervision.

Pay-only probation – Also referred to as misdemeanor probation, and often managed by a private probation company, it is placed on Georgians who are unable to immediately pay court fines and fees. Its conditions of compliance can include drug testing, electronic monitoring and specialty classes. Widely used in lower courts, it is most often imposed for misdemeanor, traffic and municipal ordinance offenses.

Judicial order – An administrative directive that a court uses to establish general rules for how matters, such as pay-only probation, will be handled in a particular court.

Fines and Fees and Their Varied Criminal Legal System Points of Contact

Georgians can be assessed fees that compound across varying points of contact with the courts and the extended criminal legal system. Nevertheless, any entry point into court or criminal debt can cause long-term harm to Georgians with low incomes and keeps many people under carceral control for longer periods than they would be without these fees.

Traffic fines and fees are civil penalties in many states, but not in Georgia, and are the most common form of court debt. Georgia further criminalizes the inability to pay court debts for traffic offenses, so traffic violations trigger not only fines and compounding fees, but also misdemeanor probation and possibly incarceration for non-payment.[7]

A person incarcerated in a local jail for unpaid traffic fines can incur more fees. Local criminal legal systems stack jail booking fees, phone call fees and room and board fees onto any unpaid debts. Rural jail data from 2020, gathered by the University of Georgia and Vera Institute of Justice research staff, offers a glimpse into incarceration outcomes across seven counties in rural Georgia: Decatur, Early, Green, Habersham, Sumter, Towns and Treutlen counties.[8] The findings underscore how fines and fees fall most sharply on people of color:

  • Fifty-six percent of people booked were African American.
  • Motor vehicle or traffic-related charges across all seven jails were the most frequent charges among those incarcerated.
  • Those charges were often due to unpaid fines stemming from driver’s license suspensions rather than dangerous driving.[9]

The researchers also found that monthly bookings dropped by 30 percent during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic but began rebounding to normal rates by the summer of 2020.

In addition to those initially confronted with low-level traffic citations, Georgians who face compounding criminal charges often experience aspects of the following fines and fees process:

  • Pre-trial. This may include bond fees, warrant fees, booking fees, jail fees, public defender application fees, electronic monitoring fees and jail phone call fees.
  • Counsel. Counsel application or appointment fees that are charged to indigent Georgians accused of a crime may accompany this, despite their having a constitutional right to defense counsel free of charge.
  • Sentencing alternatives. This could include diversion program fees, drug or alcohol testing fees and counseling fees.
  • Conviction. An individual may be assessed fees for prosecution, a public defender, DNA testing, court security, judges’ retirement funds or court operations.
  • Supervision. Georgians could face monthly probation or parole fees, electronic monitoring fees that come with a $5.25 daily fee or GPS monitoring with an $8.75 daily fee, drug or alcohol testing fees and other program fees.
  • Jail or prison custody following conviction. This includes charges for phone calls; video visitation; state prison health care costs because the state will likely no longer waive fees for COVID-related care;[10] prison commissary fees that were raised to cover $5 million in pandemic state budget cuts but never lowered after prison budgets were restored; and jail room and board fees.[11]
  • Payment following jail or prison custody. Georgians experiencing poverty are subject to poverty penalties—late fees, payment plan fees, collections fees, extended terms of community supervision, disenfranchisement, and high surcharges from private debt collectors—that they would not face if they were able to pay their full bill immediately.

Beyond the punitive fines associated with minor traffic offenses, fees can add up quickly. Under Georgia Code Ann. § 40-2-114(b), a person convicted of a minor traffic violation could be given a fine between $100 to $250.[12] Several state-mandated fees are then tacked onto the initial fine amount. For example, if the judge determines the initial fine amount will be $100, then six mandatory state fees will be added to the fine base amount:

  • Adding the County Jail fund, ten percent of the original $100 fine, equals $110; then,
  • Adding the Local Victim Assistance Fund, five percent of the $100 original fine, is $115; then
  • Adding the $5 County Law Library Fund, equals $120; then
  • Adding the Peace Officer, Prosecutor Training Fund, ten percent of the original fine, is $130; then
  • Adding the bail/bond posting fee, ten percent of the original fine, is $140; lastly
  • Adding the Indigent Defense Fund, ten percent of the original fine, is $150.

If the offense is drug- or alcohol-related, courts will add another fee that is 50 percent of the original fine, totaling to a $200 citation. Or for those driving over a certain speed limit, a $200 surcharge will be added to the fine and all other fees, totaling to a $350 citation, and driver’s license suspension will follow if the surcharge is not paid within 120 days.[13]

Georgians who cannot afford to fully pay their fines and fees by the initial payment deadline are charged with a misdemeanor and put on pay-only probation. They are often assigned to a private probation company that will be contractually allowed to profiteer through monthly probation fees as part of their collection service for the courts. Banking on long payment periods before the total debts can be paid in full, those monthly fee charges often double or triple the initial fine and fee debts assessed by the court.[14] Altogether, a simple traffic violation can result in a multiplication of fines and fees that push poor people into long-term debt and incarceration.

Data Demonstrate a Continued Crisis of Taxation by Citation in Georgia

Community-centered stories and publicly available data demonstrate that even as everyday Georgians continue to experience economic hardship in an uneven pandemic recovery, state lawmakers repeatedly fail to reform fines and fees. Instead, their focus is on prioritizing public revenues and private profit over the well-being of Georgia communities. In 74 Georgia cities and counties, fines and fees make up ten percent or more of their revenue meeting the high and abusive threshold.

During the worst part of the pandemic, state and local governments reduced public services due to budget cuts similar to what Georgia saw during the Great Recession.[15] Not only did Georgia families with low incomes and Georgians of color suffer because of pandemic cuts to critical state services like public education, health care and social services, but in many localities, they faced more aggressive fines and fees practices to fill local budget holes. Furthermore, those unable to pay fines and fees likely had their federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) stimulus checks garnished even though they were meant to relieve or prevent the exacerbation of economic hardship and human suffering caused by the pandemic.

Fines and Fees Overreliance Trends Among Georgia Localities

Any reliance on fines and fees to balance local budgets harms Georgians with low incomes who cannot afford to pay them. Therefore, any increased reliance on fines and fees to cover local budgets can significantly increase harm to residents with low incomes who encounter the legal system. Many are forced to choose between paying court debts or covering basic necessities. Particularly during the COVID-induced economic downturn, fines and fees layered more harm onto low-income and Black and Brown communities.

While public health restrictions in 2020 led to an overall reduction in fines and fees collection, those restrictions were soon eased. By the end of 2021, 33 counties collected greater shares of revenue through fines and fees to balance their budgets, surpassing their 2019 pre-pandemic levels:

33 Counties Upped Fines & Fees Reliance in Last Downturn

Among all Georgia localities, by 2021:

  • 319 localities reported that their fines and fees share of their total revenue was above the two percent national average;
  • Of those 319 localities, 242 of them relied on fines and fees to cover more than two, but less than ten percent of their budget;
  • 74 of them sought fines and fees revenue to cover at least ten percent of their total budget, which is considered high and abusive;
  • 26 of them sought fines and fees revenue to cover at least 20 percent of their budget, which mirrors the level of severe fines and fees abuse that took place in Ferguson, Missouri.

When viewing localities’ high and abusive fines and fees levels, race demographics and local resident economic hardship trends side by side:

  • Georgia had 27 localities with not only high and abusive fines and fees (relied upon for at least 10 percent of total revenue), but Black populations that are significantly higher than the state average of 33 percent and Black poverty rates higher than the state average of 14 percent.
  • Georgia had 9 localities that mirror Ferguson-level fines and fees abuse (relied upon for at least 20 percent of total revenue), with Black populations significantly higher than the state average and Black poverty rates higher than the state average.
  • Among the 74 localities that reported high and abusive fines and fees, a total of at least 24,000 Georgians in poverty are at risk of falling into the fines and fees poverty trap.[16]

These trends likely represent significant undercounts of fines and fees abuses in Georgia, as nearly one-quarter of Georgia municipalities and counties failed to report their 2021 finance data to the state.

Rising State Dependence on Fines and Fees Revenue

Reliance on aggressive revenue collection also extends to state government, which receives tens to hundreds of millions in annual revenue via dozens of fees and surcharges. These fees are either mandatory attachments to all local and state fines or to select local and state fines that each court assesses to Georgians entangled in the legal system.

Court case data show that traffic offenses have been a consistent majority of criminal cases across all Georgia courts that adjudicate them. Net total criminal case declines from 2014 to 2019 continued into the pandemic. Georgia courts saw a significant drop in total criminal cases, with 2.1 million cases in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2020. Parallel to total case decline, total fee revenue that local courts transferred to the state, declined from $86.5 million in 2019 to $79.3 million in 2020.[18] Though pandemic disruptions slowed case filings, traffic offenses made up 77 percent of all criminal cases in 2019[19] and only dropped to 74 percent as pandemic disruptions slowed case filings in 2020.[20] However, municipalities’ share of traffic offense cases grew over that same period, a signal of rising reliance on traffic fines and fees over the pandemic to fill local budget holes.[21]

As part of a longer trend, the latest 2022 court revenue data shows that total state revenues from local court fees are 11 percent higher than when court revenue data was first recorded in 2005, while total local revenues retained from local court fees are 29 percent higher in 2022 compared to 2005.[22] This change is due in part to the growth in the types of fees and surcharges that create both state and local revenue. In 2005, Georgia had 11 distinct fees or surcharges that could be attached to court fines to provide state revenue.[23] By 2022, that list grew to 17.[24] From 2005 to 2022, local fees and surcharges tied to local revenue grew from 14 to 19. Combined, the number of state and local fees and surcharges grew from 25 in 2005 to 36 by 2022, with combined state and local revenues that are 26 percent higher in 2022 compared to 2005.[25] These and other fees forcibly extracted from Georgians entangled with the criminal legal system continue to feed into and benefit from the state’s mass incarceration practices, keeping Georgia number one for percentage of population under correctional control.[26]

Unpacking the Policy Levers That Maintain Georgia’s Unjust Fines and Fees System

The small strides made to reform fines and fees practices have yet to improve public safety, safeguard basic needs or create paths to prosperity for Georgians experiencing poverty. Further, the policy levers that support current fines and fines practices remain intact. These policy levers include an inequitable state sales tax structure and inadequate investments that constrain local governments to rely on high and abusive court fines and fees to balance their budgets. Additionally, inadequate safeguards for individuals with low incomes and broad local discretion for fines and fees practices allow local governments to create and enforce ordinances that prioritize revenue and profit over public safety.

Inequitable Sales Tax Structure and Inadequate Investments

Statewide policy has maintained forcible taxation by citation in several ways.

First, Georgia’s unwillingness to utilize revenue options that equitably support government operations maintains impractical limits on local governments’ ability to raise revenue. A key example is the state’s failure to implement a sales tax structure that fairly allocates revenue-generating transactions between lower- and higher-income Georgians.[27]

Second, during the economic downturn and recovery resulting from the pandemic, Georgia has not adequately utilized its record-level rainy-day funds to support cash-strapped local governments.[28] This is another factor that has constrained localities to turn to high and abusive fines and fee reliance.

Third, the lack of long-term workforce development investments, particularly a public education opportunity weight for K-12 students living in poverty,[29] serves as a missed opportunity to bridge localities’ emerging workforce to livable wage jobs that could boost local revenue.

Inadequate Safeguards for Individuals with Low Incomes

Georgia’s current criminal legal system demonstrates a willful failure to protect low-income communities from local fines and fees debt traps. Georgia remains one of the few states that criminalize the inability to pay fines and fees up front, allowing local courts to place those who cannot pay upfront on probation. Probation supervision is then often provided by private probation companies that are allowed to forcibly collect court debts plus monthly supervision fees, various program fees and surcharges, incentivizing companies to extend supervision periods to maximize profits.

Shallow attempts to limit spiraling fees fail to close loopholes that allow private probation companies to engage in predatory revenue collection practices. For example, the passage of SB 310 in 2015 included language that placed a three-month cap on private supervision fees charged to those listed as “pay-only” probationers. However, local courts dependent on revenue gathered by private probation companies can allow companies to skirt that three-month cap by way of judicial orders. This leaves Georgians with low incomes without protections from practices that can spiral into insurmountable debt, driver’s license suspension and incarceration.[30]

State lawmakers’ most recent poverty penalty was the garnishment of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) relief checks. As Georgia’s Judicial State of Emergency expired on June 30, 2021,[31] so too did county-specific protections from private debt collectors. This change left low-income Georgians with unpaid fines and fees debts at the mercy of private probation companies. Not to mention, they may have been zero protections in place to prevent state agencies from garnishing tax refunds or federal stimulus checks to collect unpaid court and criminal debt.[32]

Wide Fines and Fees Discretion Allows Overreliance

Taxation by citation has remained at the discretion of executive branch leaders and local government legislators who set fine and fee levels and create systemically biased ordinances. Often, this spurs the weaponization of law enforcement and judicial systems against communities. One recent example is a newly added ordinance in Doraville, Georgia, that places parking restrictions on pickup trucks and cargo vans,[33] many of them utilized as work vehicles by the city’s majority population of Latinx residents. As a city with a highly publicized history of high and abusive fine and fee reliance,[34] its latest ordinance could layer disparate impacts on Latinx families who work and reside in this community. Wide discretion begins with the absence of state requirements for executive and legislative areas of local government to function independently of their judicial systems. Revenue pressures are often placed on police departments and courts during economic downturns, as higher fines and fees revenues are sought to help balance local budgets.[35] This can only exacerbate economic hardship as local and state fines and fees practices primarily rely on the communities with the least resources to fund basic government services.[36] [37]

In step with revenue pressures from local executives and legislators are unregulated revenue and conviction targets set by law enforcement and judicial leaders. These can be formal targets with explicit policies calling for officers to reach a certain number of citations, traffic stops or arrests per month or broadly set performance targets or goals on enforcement actions. They could also be more subtle or implicit cues to officers to reach or maintain agency-accepted levels of enforcement activity.[38] These targets lead law enforcement officers to forcibly extract revenue through harsh policing and citation practices for minor violations with limited local legal recourse for residents.

Projecting for this kind of revenue can create a dangerous relationship between law enforcement and the community. Increased perception of law enforcement as agents of revenue generation who are less beholden to fair application of the law ultimately undermines the legitimacy of their authority.[39] Empirical research also finds that revenue-driven law enforcement can distort police behavior and decision-making, altering the quantity, type and racial composition of arrests.[40] Paired with revenue targets, broad fines and fees discretion given to local leaders also creates systemically biased ordinances that are not sensitive to the social, cultural or economic norms among various residents, which can lead to discriminatory policing practices.

Ultimately, this policy lever misallocates local discretion, taking it away from local law enforcement officers, who are most connected to the community and giving it to those most disconnected from the community. As a result, law enforcement’s public safety duties are deprioritized, constrained and compromised by obtuse leaders. These leaders often incentivize the issuance of revenue-generating citations for minor behaviors that pose zero threat to public safety.

Local Spotlight: Chatham County Taking a Leading Step Towards Reform

Chatham County is an example of a locality with fines and fees reliance relatively close to the national average. However, the pervasiveness of fines and fees harms has left several of its residents with multiple layers of hardship.

In pre-pandemic 2019, Chatham County relied on fines and fees to cover 1.8 percent of its total budget. Along with a minority of Georgia counties, its reliance declined in 2020 and 2021, dropping to 1.6 percent in 2020 and 1.1 percent by 2021. Despite recent reliance levels below the national average, county officials have recognized the likelihood of harm to communities with low income. As a result, Chatham County recently applied for and was accepted into the Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice program, a national effort led by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, to help localities rethink their reliance on monetary penalties.[41]

This cohort, which will include county and city legislators, executives, judges and district attorney officials, along with researchers and advocates at the local, state and national levels, holds a unique opportunity to catalyze efforts toward community-led reform. Further, the participation of Chatham County district attorney officials, who work alongside police departments and judicial systems, can help reimagine local and statewide policy around issuing citations and warrants for low-level offenses. Those officials can help draft and adopt performance metrics that incentivize prosecutors to avoid prosecuting a larger share of poverty-related criminalized behavior and help create more shared local-state government responsibility around the costs of mass incarceration, probation and fines and fees policies.

The need for these efforts in Chatham County and elsewhere is underscored by the experiences of locals, like this individual, who speaks to workforce training barriers imposed by fines and fees debt:

The more money you make, the more money [they] want to pay you out your [check]. When I tried to go to [S]avannah [T]ech, I can’t get a grant because I owe the federal government money – it affected me trying to progress. I owe $9,000. Every month I was in[carcerated] I paid $25 and when I got out it tripled. It affects you to the point where you can’t even get in class, you can’t even get income tax, I’ve not gotten any of my income tax. On top of you trying to live to the point where I say I had to do 25 years and pay you money… You got stuff you need to do – you got to pay a fine, the fines affect you, it affects everybody. They need to lower it or do away with it—it keep going up…I know dudes who can’t get income tax, no loan, no grant. Yes it affects you in several different ways. It’s always hanging over your head. You get a better job and you circumvent, they charging you more and more of your money. If you make $1,000, they charge you $125.00.”

Another Chatham County resident speaks to employment barriers that are often perpetuated by fines and fees practices:

Another friend of mine did ten years—he had to pay $5,000 to get his driving license back, it wasn’t because he had a DUI, but he had an unpaid [sic] ticket from years ago and they tacked on those fines and fees—and they charged him for a class he took when he was incarcerated. His probation along with community hours- 200 community hours. How are you doing this community hours, pay these fines and work? When they are sitting down coming up with these outrageous restrictions and they don’t see how it affects a normal person. They don’t see us – they see a number. My number was [six-digit number]. They relegate us to a number.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Georgia’s fines and fees data trends are alarming and display rising revenue dependence on the criminalization of poverty, which will only restrict economic opportunity and perpetuate employment and workforce training barriers.

Those data trends demonstrate that state lawmakers could mitigate harms by dismantling the policy levers that maintain Georgia’s unjust fines and fees system. For example, overhauling the state’s inequitable sales tax structure and exploring more equitable proactive revenue sources to fund local governments; tapping record-level state rainy day funds to support local governments; and investing in long-term workforce development options, such as an opportunity weight for K-12 students living in poverty, are all policy options that are within reach.

Other policy options include strengthening fines and fees safeguards to better protect individuals with low incomes, such as closing pay-only probation loopholes that private probation companies have exploited. Additionally, instead of providing executive branch leaders and local government legislators with broad fines and fees discretion, their discretion should be narrowed, helping to eliminate revenue-based performance goals placed on law enforcement officers and judges. Ultimately, discretion should be given to the law enforcement workforce servicing the community, not those at higher echelons driven by revenue considerations.

In addition to the above, and based on the recommended fines and fees safeguards proposed in GBPI’s last fines and fees brief,[42] state-level reforms should also include:

  • Capping local and state government fines and fees revenue, in part through the statewide abolition of formal and informal traffic stop, citation, warning and arrest quotas that inhibit law enforcement and judicial discretion by incentivizing profit over justice.
  • Making the Board of Community Supervision’s quarterly reporting publicly available to promote greater transparency among Georgia localities to report fines and fees assessment and collection data as well as private probation company supervision and collection practices.
  • Requiring statewide performance measures for police officers and prosecutors that prioritize law enforcement and judicial practices that reduce incarceration for low-level offenses and poverty-related criminalized behavior.
  • Ending the requirement of full payment of fines and fees before releasing the suspension of a driver’s license, given that these suspensions primarily affect people who cannot afford to pay their fines and fees.
  • Requiring local courts to consider non-jail alternative punishments that could include community service, educational programs, work attendance or school – instead of assessing fines and fees.
  • Prohibiting local courts from incarcerating or threatening to incarcerate Georgians who cannot pay fines and fees.
  • Requiring local courts to function independently of their legislative or executive branches of local government.
  • Removing state preemptions on local governments’ ability to raise the minimum wage to more livable standards and regulate workers’ access to overtime pay. These changes will improve the incomes of people living in poverty, enhance the ability of residents to purchase goods and help raise sales tax revenue that could fund local governments.

Ultimately, state lawmakers should decisively reject a status quo that regards family and economic harm, carceral contact and workforce barriers as mere collateral damage in the revenue generation system. State policymakers and executive branch officials should immediately stop dozens of Georgia localities from further engaging in fines and fees and criminal legal systems practices that mirror the same dynamics found in Ferguson, Missouri.

Intentional, immediate, innovative and bold reforms are urgently needed to reverse the scale of these harms. Otherwise, localities across Georgia will further advance widespread financial exploitation that perpetuates poverty and forces Georgians of color and Georgians with low incomes into involuntary criminal legal system entanglement that solidifies long-term barriers to employment. If unaddressed, Georgia’s fines and fees and inequitable revenue systems will continue to fuel performance measures that turn Georgia’s law enforcement and judicial workforce into revenue agents who prioritize public funds over public safety.

How Fines and Fees Worsen Harms Among Black Georgians and Other Georgians of Color

When governments seek fines and fees to balance their budgets, they catalyze the use of revenue targets, thereby increasing the likelihood of involuntary interactions between the community and the criminal legal system through revenue-seeking traffic stops, citations and court proceedings. These targets fall hardest on Black communities and other communities of color, of whom data consistently show to be overrepresented among populations who are ticketed and searched, arrested, jailed, tried and sent to jail or prison. When law enforcement is encouraged to over-enforce low-level offenses, public safety within those disproportionately harmed communities is also compromised. Those same communities receive less attention to safety-threatening crime and face a higher risk of fraudulent citations and arrests.

Black communities and communities of color are also more likely to receive poverty-related driver’s license suspensions, low credit scores, arrests and incarceration tied to an inability to pay, in part due to their overrepresentation among economically distressed families.  Systemic racism within Georgia’s labor market leaves Black and Brown Georgians at the highest risk of spiraling hardship from fines and fees, particularly during the COVID-induced economic downturn[43] when localities often increase their reliance on them. The burden of financing local government operations ultimately falls on the backs of the Black and Brown households that can least afford them. From 2020 to now, this left:

  • Hispanic women facing the worst spikes in un- and under-employment in 2020
  • Black workers nearly two times likelier than white workers to be un- or under-employed from 2020 and 2021, and nearly three times likelier towards the end of 2022
  • Black and Hispanic Georgians more than two times likelier than white Georgians to earn incomes that were below the poverty level in 2021

Therefore, they face an outsized share of the consequences resulting from fines and fees. This financial burden ultimately increases the likelihood of Black and Hispanic workers becoming entrenched in poverty and having weaker workforce attachment due to employment barriers stemming from their disparate entanglement within the criminal legal system.

Appendix: Data and Methods

For data on how much money Georgia localities collect from fines and fees, GBPI examined local government finance reports collected by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. The latest available municipal finance data, covering over 600 Georgia municipalities, are for the fiscal year 2021. The latest available county finance data, covering Georgia’s 159 counties, are for fiscal years 2019 to 2021. Although not exhaustive, because some localities did not provide financial reports for all or any fiscal years during this three-year period, our analysis covers nearly 94 percent of counties in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and 80 percent of counties and municipalities in 2021.

For comparative analysis, GBPI reconciled fines and fees reliance with the American Community Survey (ACS) five-year (2016-2020) county and municipality population and poverty data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, using ACS poverty data thresholds for those who were below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.

For state-level labor market data used to describe how fines and fees perpetuate disparities from the COVID-induced economic downturn for Black workers and other workers of color, GBPI analyzed disaggregated unemployment and involuntary part-time employment rates using IPUMS Current Population Survey (CPS) microdata. While this analysis produces slightly different numbers for some months than state employment statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) that also incorporate other sources, CPS microdata are the only timely and publicly-available source for disaggregated state-level employment data.


[1] Prison Policy Initiative. Georgia profile. Retrieved October 26, 2022, from

[2] Sibilla, N. (2019, August 29). Nearly 600 towns get 10% of their budgets (or more) from court fines. Forbes. Retrieved November 23, 2022, from https//

[3] Maciag, M. (2019, August 19). Addicted to fines. Governing. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from

[4] Ibid.

[5] United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (2015, March 4). Investigation of the Ferguson police department.

[6] Kanso, D. (2021). Reimagining revenue: How Georgia’s tax code contributes to racial and economic inequality. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. P. 23 of 32. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

[7] Harris, A., Huebner, B., Martin, K., Patillo, M., Pettit, B., Shannon, S., Sykes, B., Uggen, C., & Fernandes, A. (April 2017). Monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. P. 48 of 213. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from

[8] University of Georgia. Project outcomes from rural jail research hub. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from

[9] Peirce, J., Bailey, M., Elbushra, S. (October 2022). Punitive policies are driving jail incarceration in rural Georgia. Vera Institute of Justice. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from

[10] Herring, T. (2022, February 1). COVID looks like it may stay. That means prison medical co-pays must go. Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from

[11] Khalfani,R. (2022, July 27). Georgia criminal legal systems budget primer for state fiscal year 2023. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved August 17, 2021, from

[12] Using Harvard Law’s Criminal Justice Debt Reform Builder database, GBPI compiled and analyzed the latest Georgia statutes for various offense levels, using one that covers minor traffic offenses as an example for a base fine amount.

[13] Harris, A., Huebner, B., Martin, K., Patillo, M., Pettit, B., Shannon, S., Sykes, B., Uggen, C., & Fernandes, A. (April 2017). Monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. P. 48 of 213. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from

[14] Albin-Lackey, C. (April 2014). Profiting from probation: America’s offender-funded probation industry. Human Rights Watch. Pages 27-28 of 78.

[15] Kanso, D. (2021, June 29). Georgia budget trends primer for state fiscal year 2022. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from

[16] GBPI calculation based on sum of latest ACS 5-year poverty estimates among all seventy-four GA localities that reported high and abusive fines and fees reliance in 2021.

[17] GBPI analysis of Judicial Council Administrative Office of the Courts Annual Reports.

[18] GBPI analysis of Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority (GSCCCA) reports on remittable and reportable funds from all courts.

[19] Harris, A., Huebner, B., Martin, K., Patillo, M., Pettit, B., Shannon, S., Sykes, B., Uggen, C., & Fernandes, A. (April 2017). Monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. P. 50 of 213. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from

[20] GBPI analysis of Judicial Council Administrative Office of the Courts Annual Reports.

[21] Ibid.

[22] GBPI analysis of Georgia Superior Court Clerks’ Cooperative Authority (GSCCCA) reports on remittable and reportable funds from all courts.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Southern Center for Human Rights. Mass incarceration. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from

[27] Kanso, D. (2021). Reimagining revenue: How Georgia’s tax code contributes to racial and economic inequality. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved September 26, 2022, from

[28] Kanso, D. (2022, August 2). With record surplus, Georgia stands at a crossroads ahead of pivotal budget session. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved November 21, 2022, from

[29] Owens, S. (2022, January 6). State of education funding 2022. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved October 24, 2022, from

[30] Barber, N. (2022, July 26). In small-town Georgia, a broken taillight can lead to spiraling debt. In These Times. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from

[31] Guidance on COVID-19 related state protections for wages and cash in bank accounts. (October 2021). National Consumer Law Center. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from

[32] Kaneya, R. (2021, July 22). Another blow to working people during the pandemic: States snatching back tax refunds. The Center for Public Integrity. Retrieved August 17, 2022, from

[33] Saccheti, M. (2021). Without citizenship, many Latinos in this Atlanta suburb remain silent. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

[34] Press Release on litigation covering Brucker et al. v. The City of Doraville. (July 2019). Fines and Fees Justice Center. Retrieved November 28, 2022, from

[35] Carpenter II, D., Lawson, C., & Deuser, C. (2021). What the Great Recession revealed about taxation by citation and what can be done about it. Univ. of Michigan Journal of Law Reform (54)4, 893-915. Retrieved September 25, 2022, from

[36] Deutsch, R. & Corra, C. L. (April 2020). Fines and fees: Raising revenue at the community’s expense. Fiscal Policy Institute. Retrieved October 9, 2022, from

[37] Jackman, T. (2020, May 12). Guest post: Court fines and fees shouldn’t be used to recover lost revenue from pandemic. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 25, 2022, from

[38] Ossei-Owusu, S. (2016, September 22). Race and the tragedy of quota-based policing. The American Prospect. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from

[39] Graham, S. & Makowsky, M. (2020, August 22). Local government dependence on criminal justice revenue and emerging constraints. Annual Review of Criminology (4). Pg. 15 of 20. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from

[40] Makowsky, M., Stratmann, T., & Tabarrok, A. (2018 September). To serve and collect. The fiscal and racial determinants of law enforcement. Social Science Research Network. Retrieved August 18, 2022, from

[41] Cities and Counties for Fine and Fee Justice. Local reform campaign. Fines and Fees Justice Center.

[42] Khalfani, R. (December 16, 2021). Unjust revenue from an imbalanced criminal legal system: How Georgia’s fines and fees worsen racial inequity. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from

[43] Khalfani, R. (2021, April 20). State of working Georgia: Pandemic job numbers are improving, but inequitably. Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from