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Court fines and fees study group meets to mull further reforms

James Dawson/Delaware Public Media

A study group created by lawmakers last year as part of reforms to Delaware’s use of court fines and fees met for the first time this week.

The group was created by lawmakers last year as part of a reform bill that also eliminated nearly all fines and court fees for juvenile defendants, prohibited the state from paying restitution directly to insurance providers, and eliminated the payment of fines and fees as a condition of probation.

But Delaware Campaign to End Debtors’ Prisons coordinator Meryem Dede says Delawareans still owe tens of millions of dollars in outstanding court fines and fees, creating a stumbling block for low-income defendants or their families. Dede also argues relying on crime to fund essential state services, like courthouse security or video phones in jails, is an inherently unsustainable budget tool.

“There are ethical reasons to be thinking about this, but just looking at the fluctuation in these numbers, if these are things we care about – infrastructure we care about – then we want this revenue source to be stable, which it will never be when funded through fees," she said.

Co-chair State Rep. Sean Lynn (D-Dover) says that aside from considering additional reforms, the study group is also responsible for finding alternative funding sources for state agencies that rely on court fees to pay for essential services like courthouse security.

“More concerningly, I’m sure, is ‘how am I going to fill the void that these fines and fees provide my entity if that revenue source no longer exists?’" he said.

The study group includes members of those agencies, such as State Police and Delaware Courts, the latter of which expressed initial support for additional reforms.

Some possible changes suggested included assessing a person’s ability to pay fines and fees before sentencing and adjusting accordingly, as well as eliminating some costs associated with applying for expungement.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.