Our current policy is 25 cents per day, per item, capped at $10 per item. When total fines of $10 accrue on your card, it is blocked. If you have a lost item and pay the replacement fee, any overdue fees attached to that item are removed (you don't have to pay both). If you have lost items that mount up over $50 (not just overdue fines) the police will eventually get involved (this is a process that usually takes up to if not more than a year and involves multiple letters, offers of payment plans, etc.).
I've instituted the following fine-free programs over the space of more than five years. It took a lot of research, discussion, argument, and waiting for the right moment, the right staff, and the right Board to support the programs. It's not something that happened overnight.
All year I have a "read off your fines" program for juvenile card holders. This would be kids under 16, since in our consortium when they turn 16 they get an adult card. The idea is pretty simple - read a book, fill out a form, get $3 off your overdue fines. You can clear off up to $21 every year. If kids really struggle with reading they can give their little "report" orally. If they only write two sentences, I don't care. If their parent writes it for them, that's fine too. They read a book at some point, I take some fines off and relieve a little stress. Here's the form if you want to try something similar at your library.
In 2014 I started a summer fine amnesty program. Every child I visit before summer reading begins (which generall means four year old kindergarten through middle school) gets a coupon that will clear off ALL their fines. It does have an expiration date (end of June or July) and they do have to not lose it. The thousands of dollars some people thought we would lose over this did not materialize - in 2014 it was $900 (with one $300 fine), in 2015 it was about $400 and in 2016 back to about $860. You can see a sample coupon here.
I have made "$5 off your overdue fines" certificates as a teen prize in the past, but they didn't get taken so either the kids with fines aren't reading much or they prefer to deal with the fines in other ways and have candy instead! Get out of fines coupon here.
Finally, in the summer of 2016 our Board approved a "clean slate" policy for kids turning 16 and moving from a juvenile to adult card. The policy is as follows:
- Young adults who have reached the age of majority (age 16 for library purposes) and have a juvenile account with outstanding bills will have the opportunity to clear their account with a “clean slate” and start over with an adult (General) card.
- The library is willing to forgive one half of the fines owed, if the young adult will pay the other half, with a maximum payment of $20.00.
- Fees for lost items will not be forgiven, but transferred to the co-signing parent or guardian’s account.
- The profile on the account will be changed from Juvenile to General. If the juvenile card is lost, they will not be charged for a new card.
- This policy is not applicable for juvenile accounts that have been sent to the police.
I'm super excited about this - it will mean teens who had fines years ago as kids can start clean, and it will also clear the cards of kids whose parents abused their children's library cards.
The main arguments I've heard about not forgiving fines for kids is that the library will lose money, that they won't learn responsibility, it's not fair to adults who don't get their fines forgiven, that kids won't return their books on time if there's no penalty, they'll just rack up more fines, and they're just going to use their cleared cards to go on the internet and check out movies/video games.
To the first argument, I tracked our first fine amnesty program last year and we forgave $900 in fines, $300 of which was one single fine. We got several hundred dollars worth of materials returned that we would otherwise have never seen again. Our yearly fine revenue is about $25,000 so that's really a drop in the bucket.
To the rest of the arguments my response is; I don't give a shit. What, you thought I was going to include some carefully reasoned points for debate? My job description is not "to teach kids to be responsible" or "to make everything fair for the grown-ups." My job is to get kids and families to visit and use the library. End of argument.