What happens when an individual can’t afford to pay a fine? Perhaps they recently lost a job or are a single parent struggling to find the cash to buy food for their children. In situations such as these, paying a ticket is a low priority relative to other expenses.
The good news is there are typically options. Most courts offer one or more methods to help out financially struggling individuals—for example, performing community service instead of paying the fine. The bad news is, most people don’t know about this opportunity and they aren’t proactively informed by the court. Many people ignore the fine in hopes that it will disappear or be dealt with later. Unfortunately, problems only compound if one fails to pay the state.
An unpaid fine will begin to accrue fees and interest, and a eventually a judge may issue a bench warrant for the person’s arrest. What was a relatively small financial burden will become a major complication, sometimes escalating to jail time. In Utah, an average of eight people are arrested for failure to pay a fine every single day.
In an effort to remedy this issue, we contacted each justice court around the state to learn how they handle the community service option. Following our research and analysis, we decided to propose legislation to standardize this option and ensure that each defendant was proactively provided the opportunity to volunteer at a non-profit instead of paying money to the government.
Representative Brian King enthusiastically sponsored what became House Bill 248. When initially introduced, the language of the bill would have legally obliged Utah courts to offer an option for community service to be done in lieu of paying a fine for an infraction or misdemeanor. This way, if a person couldn’t afford to pay, they could volunteer at a rate of $10 per hour to pay off their fine.
After speaking with multiple stakeholders such as the Utah Courts and the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, it was determined that some changes needed to be made before the bill would pass. After Rep. King sat down with different organizations to formulate a substitute bill, HB 248 moved forward with success.
The biggest change to the bill was that courts would have to consider a community service option instead of necessarily allowing it every single time. This gives the judge discretion over each case. With the new changes to the bill, community service will be allowed for infractions along with class B and C misdemeanors.
Most courts across the state already offer the option to perform community service work in lieu of paying a fine. But now, individuals will be proactively informed of this option, rather than having to already know about it and request it themselves. This was another important addition inserted in the substitute bill. As a result of this addition, people will know that they don’t have to pay the fine if they can’t, but they can instead request to work off their bill.
This bill codifies an important alternative for those who are financially struggling. The legislature recognized this which is why it passed through the House unanimously, and through the Senate with only one dissenting vote.
There are over 3,000 Utahns a year who are arrested due to failure to pay their fines. This bill will help these individuals by notifying them of a non-monetary option to take care of their fines. Arrest rates and financial burdens will likely decrease due to this bill becoming law. Judges who don’t already employ a compensatory service option will now be compelled to consider it which will likely lead to increased availability of this opportunity for individuals across Utah.
By approving this bill, the legislature has contributed towards helping out thousands of Utahns for years to come.