August 8, 2023
Two Commonwealth’s Attorneys Announce Policy to Reduce Court Debt Collection Fees
Today, two Commonwealth’s Attorneys — the Hon. Buta Biberaj (Loudoun) and the Hon. Ramin Fatehi (Norfolk) — are announcing a change to how court debt will be collected in their respective localities. Moving forward, the responsibility for collecting outstanding court debt will shift to the Virginia Department of Taxation, which has a substantially lower collection fee. This represents a step forward to help people navigate their court debt, which too often traps those with few resources into cycles of poverty.
Under current Virginia law, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are required to choose, on an annual basis, the method of collecting outstanding court debt, which may include a private collection agency, the county or city treasurer, a local governing body, or the Department of Taxation. In exercising this discretion, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are also required to assess and compare collection fees.
As a result of shifting to the Department of Taxation, the collection fee in each of the localities mentioned above will decrease. While collection fees can reach as high as 35% in some localities across Virginia, the Department of Taxation charged 16.4% in the budget year that ended June 30, 2022 (FY 2022), representing one of the lowest collection fees in the Commonwealth (collection fees are calculated using revenues from collection fees as a share of gross collections for all fines and fees). A total of 92 other localities already use the Department of Taxation for court debt collection.
Today’s announcement is consistent with guidance from the American Bar Association, which has warned about the “inherent conflicts of interest” when for-profit companies are responsible for collecting court fines and fees. Profits secured from collecting court debt is also problematic in light of research by The Commonwealth Institute demonstrating that court fines and fees are imposed with unparalleled intensity on Black communities and people with low incomes in Virginia.
“Court costs are an unfair tax on poor people and their families. Profiting off of those taxes with excessive collection fees is even more unfair,” says Commonwealth Attorney Ramin Fatehi. “Norfolk will now use the lowest collection fee allowed under our current state laws. We should use the criminal justice system to promote justice and safety, not to make profits.”
“This collaboration may ease the financial hardship that low-income individuals often endure due to mounting court expenses,” says Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj. “This approach can foster a more equitable process where we uplift the less fortunate, and help them comply with their court responsibilities without overwhelming them so that they may be successful and thrive.”
The decision to shift the debt collection process to the Department of Taxation comes from research from The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice to promote safe communities while addressing unequal outcomes in the criminal legal system.
Additional Media Contacts
Vera Institute for Justice
About The Commonwealth Institute
The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis advances racial and economic justice in Virginia by advocating for public policies that are designed in partnership with people most impacted, and shaped by credible, accessible fiscal and policy research. Our independent research and analysis drives key state budget, legislative, and policy changes that break down barriers and create opportunity for people and communities across Virginia. Visit www.thecommonwealthinstitute.org for more information.
About the Vera Institute of Justice
The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit vera.org.