Last week, the Free Library of Philadelphia announced that it will no longer charge fines for overdue books. The library used to impose a 25 cents a day fine for a late book and restrict library privileges once the amount owed reached $5. When Chicago eliminated overdue fines, its library saw a 240% increase in book returns.
The move may seem like a minor change, but in fact, it provides a rich opportunity for more scrutiny into the fines and fees that are imposed throughout other areas of government. That could have a significant impact on the many people throughout the region who struggle to make ends meet — even those who are not living in poverty. According to a new study conducted by the University of Washington and commissioned by PathWays PA, a Philadelphia family of four had to earn $70,000 in 2019 to meet a standard of self-sufficiency; 60% of Philadelphia households earn less than $60,000. When so many families start the year in the red, rethinking the impact of fees and fines is a wise move. Some examples:
Losing a photo ID in Pennsylvania could be the same as losing a $50 bill — the equivalent of seven hours of work in a minimum wage job. The fee to replace a four-year driver’s license is $30.50 and to replace an identification card is $31.50. If you don’t have a passport, you’d need to prove your identity with your birth certificate. Obtaining a copy costs $20.
Recognizing that these fees are barriers to obtaining ID, Gov. Tom Wolf waived the birth certificate fee for people seeking help for substance use disorder in 2018 and for people in homelessness in 2019. Why not provide that opportunity for more people?
The register of wills is in charge of probating, or opening, deeds after someone dies. Probating a property valued at $50,000 to $200,000 costs $475 — a sum of money that many Philadelphians don’t have. When a property is not probated, the next of kin is unable to sell the house or apply to some home repair programs. They are also vulnerable to deed theft. Philadelphia’s new register of wills, Tracey Gordon, ran on “comprehensive probate reform” and said she’s open to creating a fee waiver for low-income people. We’re anxious to see her plan.
Probably no entity nickel-and-dimes Philadelphians more than the criminal justice system. Even with District Attorney Larry Krasner’s reforms, cash bail is imposed in the Philadelphia court system every day. An arrest can lead to a hefty tab because of court fees and fines. Since the summer, Krasner’s office waives some of these for indigent defendants. There are still costs, including for mandated treatment, that need review.
Better scrutiny of all fees could turn up opportunities for logical fee increases — like the fee for a residential parking permit. A parking permit for a household’s first car costs just $35 a year — much less than the $96 for a SEPTA monthly TransPass. While other fees should be reevaluated, there is no reason that parking in Center City should be so cheap.