Our monetary sanctions research team has completed year 2 of our five year project. We have conducted over 380 interviews across eight states with people who have been sentenced to legal debt as a result of municipal and felony convictions. In this report we outline our preliminary findings from these interviews. We found that many people have difficulty navigating the legal process, they have varying legal and economic experiences across the jurisdictions studied and have a range of abilities to pay off their legal debt. All of which leads to difficult social, legal, health and financial consequences. This coming year we will be conducting further systematic analyses of our transcripts. We are also continuing our data collection in the eight states, including observations of court hearings and interviews with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks and probation officers.
The phrase “criminal justice system” may conjure images of courtrooms, juries and prison. But “when justice is doled out, it increasingly impacts the pocketbook,” according to Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington.
Harris leads a team of researchers at nine universities who are exploring the role of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. They recently completed a review of financial punishments in the laws of each of their home states. Based on their preliminary findings, the impact to a person’s pocketbook depends largely on his or her location on a map.
“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 Harris. “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. They 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 Harris and her team 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, which was a comprehensive review of financial punishments, law and policy across nine states: California (Bryan Sykes), Georgia (Sarah Shannon), Illinois (Mary Pattillo), Minnesota (Chris Uggen), Missouri (Beth Huebner), New York (Karin Martin), North Carolina (April Fernandes), Texas (Becky Pettit) and Washington. These states account for more than one-third of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people. These nine states also are home to more than 40 percent of people in the U.S. who are under community-based supervision.
In general, the researchers found wide variation on the fine and fee amounts sentenced to rule breakers, the circumstances in which they’re imposed and even when courts allow people to pay their financial obligations. But all nine states impose monetary sanctions on a routine basis. In some states, the fines are specific: Washington, North Carolina and Georgia have detailed lists of mandatory fees for each offense.
Usually, the offense, rather than the person’s ability to pay, determines the amount of the monetary sanction. Harris and her colleagues found that judges and other officers of the court often have little leeway in imposing monetary sanctions. In Washington, judges can waive interest payments on certain fines once the principal has been paid. Missouri courts are advised to consider a person’s ability to pay when imposing certain fines. But these are exceptions. In general, these sanctions cannot be revoked – only paid.
“There are few ways to find relief from a sanction once it has been imposed,” said Harris.
The researchers also found variation among states and municipalities 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.
“In many states or jurisdictions, non-payment of any legal fine can lead to suspension of a driver’s license, which can affect a person’s ability to get to a job,” said Harris. “In other states, persistent non-payment leads to a suspension of voting rights.”
The absence of a national framework governing monetary sanctions ultimately led to this variation, Harris said. But 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.
“On paper, monetary sanctions make sense. If you commit a crime – and are duly convicted – then you pay,” said Harris. “But is it fair to set up a sanction that a person has no ability to pay? What is the true purpose of this punishment? These are the underlying issues states must ultimately confront as they consider reforms to monetary sanction laws and statutes.”
Harris and her colleagues are building on this initial review by conducting analyses in nine states of fines and fees from state court data, observing court proceedings and interviewing court officers and debtors. Harris’ previous work in A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment suggests that these sanctions have expanded as a result of another modern trend in the criminal justice system.
“Since the 1970s, there has been a massive, 500 percent increase in incarceration rates, and states have had to look for ways to fund that,” said Harris. “And starting in the 1990s, states have created statutes to increase fines and fees or create new ones.”
The national research team’s endeavors will help resolve the details of monetary sanctions and how they differ among states. They will also examine, among other questions, the underlying question of why monetary sanctions have become such a prominent part of the modern criminal justice system nationally.
For more information, contact Harris at [email protected]
Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Comprehensive Project for Reform is a collaboration of the Criminal Justice Policy Program and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC). The initiative aims to bring together and provide tools to criminal justice advocates and civil justice advocates working towards reforming the challenges posed by criminal justice debt. This initiative released three reports today.
The Urgent Need for Comprehensive Reform
An overview of the collaboration project.
A Guide for Litigation
This guide is geared toward attorneys protecting clients from the problems posed by criminal justice debt practices.
A Guide for Policy Reform
This guide provides an overview of various areas of law regarding harmful criminal justice debt practices as well as detailed policy reform strategies.
For more information on this collaboration, visit their site here.
The Juvenile Law Center released a multi-state report on the costs of fines and fees in the juvenile justice system. The report describes the types of financial obligations youth and families face, including the legal and economic consequences of failure to pay.
Ed Spillane, a judge in the College Station, TX municipal court, writes about his approach to reduce the abuse of monetary sanctions in the Washington Post:
What to do with these cases? In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.
There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.
The Advancement Project just issued a new report that details how an anti-immigrant driving law has had severe impacts on communities of color in the state.
The DOJ recently issued a new set of recommendations to state and local legislators and judges recommending broad reforms to the imposition of monetary sanctions and consequences for non-payment. In particular, they reinforce the unconstitutionality of incarcerating individuals for non-payment of fines and fees when they are unable to pay. Principal Investigator Alexes Harris was part of the White House convening that helped inform DOJ on monetary sanctioning practices around the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center is attempting to force municipalities to stop using private companies to collect on monetary sanctions, an arrangement that adds another layer of financial hardships on top of already burdensome fines and fees.
Fifty-four towns and cities across Alabama have reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center that they either have or intend to terminate their contracts with a for-profit company that collects traffic fines and other minor court debt for municipalities by charging illegal fees and threatening impoverished Alabamians with jail, the SPLC announced today.
In June, the SPLC urged officials in almost 100 municipalities to end their contracts with the company, Judicial Correction Services (JCS). The letter from the SPLC warned that the contracts are illegal and that the tactics used by JCS to collect fines can amount to extortion. Some of the Alabama municipalities had already severed ties with the company without the SPLC’s urging.
“These cities and towns are doing the right thing by cutting ties with Judicial Correction Services,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Our investigation in Clanton shows that JCS is built on a business model that squeezes money out of the poor, often by resorting to illegal tactics. The leaders in these cities and towns have recognized that a contract with JCS is bad for their communities. We’re pleased they have done the right thing to avoid litigation.”
Approximately 50 towns are believed to still have contracts with JCS. The SPLC is awaiting their decision. The SPLC also warned approximately 30 towns this week that have contracts with similar for-profit companies.
Read more about this effort at the The Southern Poverty Law Center.