A few years ago, a Utahn named Sandra was pulled over for speeding after she attempted to get her daughter to work on time. Unfortunately for her, this resulted in a ticket that she simply couldn’t afford; her family’s financial situation was dire.
Not knowing what else to do, she went to her court hearing to explain to the judge that she couldn’t come up with the money. She broke down in tears in front of everybody in the courtroom, ashamed of her situation. Fortunately, the judge offered a solution, allowing Sandra to perform community service in lieu of her fine. “I bawled my eyes out because I was so grateful,” she told us recently. “It was a huge blessing in my life.”
Sandra was fortunate to be able to pay her ticket off with volunteer hours instead of cash. It saved her and her family a lot of grief and the possibility of having to pay interest with late fees piled on top, which could have led to a warrant and arrest if gone unpaid.
According to research we’ve been conducting, only a few judges in justice courts across Utah proactively provide this option for people struggling with payments. Typically accredited at $10 per hour, this allows people to spend time rather than money they may not have. A service option such as this is a great alternative for low-income Utahns along with anyone who is going through a difficult time financially in their life, while also benefiting the community.
Sandra had the privilege of receiving an alternative penalty for her ticket, but many struggling Utahns are not made aware of this choice; few courts proactively provide this option for those who cannot pay. For many Utahns, this initial inability to pay eventually leads to handcuffs.
According to the Utah Administration of Courts, every single day an average of 176 people in Utah are arrested because of their failure to pay fines; 254 Utahns have warrants issued against them for failure to pay. These fine amounts vary from case to case, but the reality is, if you simply forgot to pay or just couldn’t come up with the money, your whole livelihood could be threatened by something as minuscule as a parking ticket.
Many people simply can’t afford to have a few weeks notice to pay the hundreds of dollars that the state demands for what could be a minor infraction. If they can’t afford the fine, their driver’s license will then be suspended by the state—a consequence that severely limits the individual’s ability to maintain stable employment and housing, forcing them into an even worse financial situation. If that person is caught driving with a suspended license, they could be given more fines and be sent to jail. Essentially, the situation looks grim for people going through difficult financial times.
We believe the Utah Legislature needs to change the law to allow community service to be provided as a publicized and available alternative option for all defendants in justice courts (involving low-level misdemeanors and infractions). This will help alleviate the pain of high fees for financially burdened Utahns who commit low-level offenses. It will also be a cost-efficient diversion away from the criminal justice system for these people, saving taxpayers who are required to fund over $80 a day to keep people in jail. Providing Utahns this option for low-level offenses will also benefit our communities which would have access to a larger pool of volunteers for beneficial community service.
This proposed solution is a win-win both for struggling Utahns and for communities that could benefit from the service they provide. We urge state legislators to adopt this policy and proactively provide Utahns with the opportunity to save their money and instead serve their community.