Jefferson County Equitable Fines and Fees Project (Project JEFF)



Established in 2021, the Jefferson County Equitable Fines and Fees Project (Project JEFF) is a collaboration between MDRC, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, Alabama’s Tenth Judicial Circuit Court, and the Center for Court Innovation. The purpose of this collaborative is to better understand the debt landscape and the impacts of legal financial obligations (LFOs) in Jefferson County, home to the city of Birmingham, Alabama. LFOs are fines, costs, or fees that are assessed in civil and criminal cases.

With early support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and IBM’s AI for Social Good Program, Project JEFF’S preliminary analysis of five years of county-wide data shows that approximately 70 percent of LFO debt goes uncollected and that it falls disproportionately on poor and Black communities in Jefferson County. The current phase of work examines longitudinal, case-level LFO data to support the development and implementation of mitigation strategies related to the current fines and fees practices in Jefferson County.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The goal of Project JEFF is to conduct an in-depth, exploratory analysis of the LFO debt burden in Jefferson County, present findings to regional stakeholders and local partners, and collaboratively develop responsive policy to address the inequities of LFO administration within the county. Specifically, MDRC seeks to answer the following research questions:

  1. Who are the individuals and groups (by race, age, gender, and neighborhood) most affected by LFOs in Jefferson County?
  2. What are the markers of distress and inability to pay, where do disparities emerge, and what policy-relevant factors are driving these outcomes?
  3. How are LFOs geographically distributed across Jefferson County?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Project JEFF uses a mixed-methods approach. The study will rely primarily on administrative data provided by the Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts merged with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Project JEFF team will also conduct in-depth interviews with stakeholders and focus groups with individuals directly impacted by the system of LFO and debt collection in Jefferson County.