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Money Matters: Alternatives to Paying Court Fines and Fees

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Facing criminal charges is not only incredibly stressful, it can be very costly.

Even if you hire an attorney who is able to get your case dismissed, you will still have to pay the attorney's legal fee. If your attorney works out a reduction of the charge (for example, if he obtains a deal for a "wet" reckless instead of a DUI), you will also have to pay a fine associated with the charge for which you are ultimately convicted.

For example, here in Kern County, the fine for a misdemeanor driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs case currently totals $1,930 once all the court fees and penalty assessments are totaled. A "wet" reckless fine will set you back about $1,200. Most crimes carry with them a fine of at least $500 and many are over $1,000. Here in California, even traffic tickets are notoriously expensive; for instance, the fine for running a red light is more than $500.

While these fees are technically considered due in full the day you are convicted, a payment plan can be set up if your situation calls for it. You may however, be required to prove your income to the court in order to show why you qualify for a particular payment plan.

For some people, the fines and fees are almost a worse punishment than a conviction, and even making monthly payments is out of the question. In such situations, a knowledgeable attorney will advise of the alternatives to paying these hefty fines. In Kern County, these alternatives include the following:

Community Service:

Community Service is a flexible option that allows an individual to do volunteer work at places such as Goodwill, Animal Shelters, or local churches. The number of hours one must serve will largely depend upon the amount of the fine being worked off, but generally speaking, the conversion rate is 8 hours for every $100.

Work Release:

Work release is administered by the Kern County Sheriff's Department and allows an individual to work off their fine by doing manual labor (usually cleaning up) around local government buildings. Importantly, work release is technically an alternative to a jail sentence, so if an individual signs up for work release and then decides not to do it, he will be obligated to do that time in jail instead unless his attorney can convince the court to convert the sentence back to a fine or to community service. Both of these programs can usually be scheduled around a person's work hours.

NOTE: Converting a fine to either community service or work release will eliminate a large portion of the fine, but will often leave up to about $300 in non-waivable fines, depending upon the offense the individual is convicted of. Additionally, both community service and work release also charge an administrative fee. While these costs are substantially less than the court fines, they must still be taken into consideration.

While these alternatives are potential options, they are not a guarantee in every situation, particularly in light of California's budgetary constraints which have given courts an incentive to make individuals pay their fines in full. If someone wishes to pursue either community service or work release, a skilled attorney will frame this request to the Judge in the best possible light in order to get the court to grant it and will work to get the fine converted to the lowest number of hours or days possible.