The phrase “criminal justice system” may conjure images of courtrooms, juries and prison. But when justice is doled out, it can have a harsh impact on a person’s pocketbook, depending on where he or she lives, according to a cross-state analysis.
University of Texas at Austin sociologist Becky Pettit and team of researchers at nine universities are exploring the role of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system and recently completed a review of financial punishments in their home states.
“There is an extreme amount of variation – both between states and within states – on how, when and where monetary sanctions are imposed by court officials,” said University of Washington sociology professor Alexes Harris, lead author of the study. “It’s a mess, and there are few guidelines and no national framework governing the use of monetary sanctions.”
Monetary sanctions include fines, court fees, restitution, surcharges and even interest on unpaid sanctions that are imposed for offenses ranging from traffic violations and misdemeanors to felony convictions. Though these types of financial punishments have a long history in the United States, state and local governments have been imposing monetary sanctions with increasing frequency over the past 30 years. The result is a national patchwork of financial punishments, which researchers across the U.S. are working to blueprint as part of a five-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
On April 20th, 2017, the group released a detailed report of the first year of their work — a comprehensive review of financial punishments, law and policy across nine states that account for more than one-third of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people and 40 percent of people under community-based supervision: California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas and Washington.
“Compared to other states in the study, Texas has the largest criminal justice system and routinely charges fines, fees, and other court costs at every level of criminal justice contact,” said Pettit, who is also a faculty affiliate of the University’s Population Research Center. “In addition to fines, the imposition of court fees and costs for misdemeanor traffic offenses is comparatively widespread in the Lonestar state.”
Usually, the offense, rather than the person’s ability to pay, determines the amount of the monetary sanction, and judges and other officers of the court often have little leeway in imposing monetary sanctions, researchers said.
The researchers also found variation not just in the size of the monetary fines and the crimes for which they are imposed, but also the consequences for failure to pay. Though debtors’ prisons have long been abolished, courts can still issue warrants for persistent non-payment or impose other penalties. Since people in the criminal justice system are more likely to be poor, the consequences for falling behind in payments can be far-reaching, including a suspension of a driver’s license in some states and a suspension of voting rights in others, researchers said.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice went so far as to issue a “Dear Colleague” letter on fines and fees. In 2015, Missouri’s Ferguson Commission noted how monetary sanctions can contribute to inequality in the justice system. As these and other efforts draw attention to the disparate monetary sanction policies across states, they may prompt states to revisit those policies.
The researchers are building on this initial review by conducting analyses in eight states of fines and fees from state court data, observing court proceedings and interviewing court officers and debtors. The national research team endeavors will help resolve the details of monetary sanctions and how they differ among states, they will also examine the underlying question of why monetary sanctions have become such a prominent part of the modern criminal justice system nationally.