New law sponsored by Rep. Knight, Sen. McCaffrey eliminates court fees for many defendants
Change is meant to free Rhode Islanders from cycle of debt
STATE HOUSE – A new law sponsored by Rep. Jason Knight and Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey will eliminate court costs for many Rhode Islanders, lifting a burden that often results in re-incarceration and serves as a stumbling block for many after prison.
The legislation (2022-H 7695, 2022-S 2774), which has now been signed into law after passing the General Assembly June 21, eliminates all court costs, assessments and fees for those determined to be indigent, as well as all those who serve more than 30 days in prison. The bill concerns only court fees, not restitution for theft or property damage.
The legislation, which Representative Knight and Majority Leader McCaffrey submitted at the request of the Judiciary, is aimed at preventing court costs from becoming an inescapable trap for those who’ve served their time and need to put their lives back together.
“A person who is indigent and just getting out of prison obviously does not have the resources to pay the court. Frankly, many people who weren’t indigent going into prison are also not going to be able to pay them when they get out. They’ve likely lost their job, and with a conviction on their record, they will struggle to get a new one that pays enough to support them. They may have lost their housing, their vehicle and their relationships. Their priority needs to be putting their lives back together and supporting themselves. Society is better served by their successful reintegration than by shackling them with court debt that they can’t pay and that could result in their returning to prison,” said Representative Knight (D-Dist. 67, Barrington, Warren).
The sponsors liken court fees to a “crime tax” charged to defendants in addition to their sentences. Many of the fees collected aren’t even used for the courts and are instead transferred to the state’s general fund.
Said Majority Leader McCaffrey (D-Dist. 29, Warwick), “There are thousands of Rhode Islanders paying just $10 a month on their court debts, meaning they are going to have this hanging over their heads virtually forever. A great deal of the fees go unpaid. Missing a payment results in more fees, and can result in a person getting arrested, perpetuating the cycle. It’s an excessively punitive second sentence placed on defendants in addition to their actual sentence, and it’s counterproductive to rehabilitation. Eliminating these fees will go a long way toward reforming our justice system so that it’s much more possible for people to rebuild their lives and become contributing members of the community after they serve their time.”
Previous law said judges “may” waive fees for those unable to pay. Under the new law, the fees are automatically eliminated for the indigent and those serving sentences longer than 30 days.
Under the new law, the courts determine whether a defendant is indigent based on application or sworn testimony. They will automatically qualify as indigent if they are enrolled in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Social Security including Supplemental Security Income and State Supplemental Payments programs, public assistance, disability insurance or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The new law also allows non-indigent defendants who have a limited ability or inability to pay court costs, assessments and fees to apply for the court to waive court costs.
The legislation was supported by the Judiciary, the Public Defender’s Office and a broad coalition of advocacy organizations, including the Nonviolence Institute, Open Doors and the Rhode Island Center for Justice.