Coastal Georgia’s Chatham County has been chosen to join a group of six cities and counties across the country tasked with criminal justice reform, specifically as it relates to fines and fees such as speeding tickets, court costs, and probation fees. 

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

The Fines and Fees Justice Center — a national advocacy organization with operations in several states — and San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project selected Chatham to participate in Cities and Counties for Fine & Fee Justice (CCFFJ), a program meant to help localities rethink their reliance on monetary penalties.

According to the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office, localities in Georgia generate more than 10% of their general revenues through fines and fees compared to the national average of 2%.

“That is taking advantage of the fact that we have an impoverished population,” said Coco Papy, who directs public policy for Deep Center, a Savannah-based social justice nonprofit. “And instead of looking at things like ability to pay or sliding scale mechanisms, we’re over-penalizing people.”

That’s something she hopes to help change: together with Chatham County Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Edwards and Chatham County Commissioner Aaron “Adot” Whitely, the trio will represent the county in CCFFJ as its only Georgia member in the 2022 cohort.

Members will receive customized technical and strategic assistance, including access to policy, research, communications, and data on fines and fees policies — all tools that Papy said had been previously unavailable to her team.

“We absolutely expect to find ways in which fines and fees are being used that probably don’t need to be used the way they are,” Papy said, adding that the cost of collecting fines and fees often exceeds the revenue brought in. “And so we can change that, which is great.”

Edwards echoed her enthusiasm, saying that the DA’s office is excited to work with CCFFJ to ensure fines and fees justice in Chatham County — and perhaps serve as a template for other cities and counties across the Peach State.

“Fines and fees should be equitable, fair, and clearly related to public safety,” Edwards said. “It is vital that we understand how fines and fees affect our citizens so that programs can be developed to address this serious economic issue in our community and to create a model for other communities to follow.”

Other members of the CCFFJ cohort include Jefferson County, Ala.; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Washtenaw County, Mich.; Wilmington, Del.; and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.

Papy pointed to Georgia’s probation system as a major area for improvement in terms of fines and fees justice, drawing particular attention to the private industry often used for misdemeanors.

“There’s this whole idea that probation is an alternative to incarceration, and that’s all fine and good,” Papy said. “But what we see is that probation — especially if it’s privatized and especially if there is a huge monetary attachment to it — sinks people deeper and deeper into the system.”

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Benjamin is the Savannah-based reporter for GPB, where he covers Coastal Georgia. Prior to coming to Savannah, he freelanced in Bellingham, Washington, for public media outlets including NPR, Marketplace,...