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2020 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

The True Cost of Court Debt

About the Project

“What’s the big deal about having your drivers’ license suspended, anyway?”.

Juliette Rihl heard this question and several more like it while spending hours in courtrooms watching dozens of hearings. For each of these comments, there were many more that conveyed the importance of what she was covering. She heard from numerous people struggling to pay off their court debt, how their $25 fine would end up costing more than $150 and, overall, how those fines and fees had a deep effect on their livelihoods and access to opportunities.

“I’m just trying to get my life back together,” said one man in the courthouse lobby after his hearing. He was there to pay off a DUI charge from 11 years back.

Another woman told Juliette in January that, in budgeting for Christmas, she’d missed her December court payment and had fallen behind on her rent. “This happens every year,” she said.

Throughout her reporting, Juliette understood that while court fines and fees in Allegheny County seriously need to be reformed, the issue does not get serious attention. In “The True Cost of Court Debt”, Juliette gave the topic attention and research it deserves.

“The True Cost of Court Debt” is a four-part series. Each part focuses on a different issue related to court fines and fees in Allegheny County: How fines and fees balloon and become insurmountable; the impact of court costs on the total financial burden of an offense; the impact of drivers license suspension on a defendant’s ability to pay the fees; and how jail time for nonpayment has been ruled unconstitutional, but still occurs.

Juliette is a Justice Reporting Fellow for the 2019 John Jay Fellowship on “Cash Register Justice” and her work on this project was supported through her fellowship.