Criminalizing Poverty: The Consequences of Court Fees in a Randomized Experiment

Using a randomized controlled trial of court related fee relief for misdemeanor defendants, the authors tested the hypothesis that financial obligations criminalize poverty and later court involvement results from an inability to meet the financial burdens, not crime. The authors found that fines and fees did contribute to the criminalization of low-income defendants and placed them at risk of ongoing court involvement through new warrants and debt collection. 

Read the full study here

Key Findings: 

  • Study participants were charged with a misdemeanor offense and represented by the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office between September 2017 and January 2019.
  • Of 606 respondents, 295 were randomly assigned to treatment and 311 to the control group; for participants assigned to treatment, court orders waived all current and prior Oklahoma County court fines and costs on felony and misdemeanor cases, and supervision and prosecution fees on the current case. 
  • In the first three months after a misdemeanor conviction, respondents who had their fines and fees waived were significantly less likely to be charged with a new offense and also had a lower rate of new criminal convictions.
  • Six months after the initial case, the Oklahoma County misdemeanor court was about 13 percent more likely to issue a new warrant for control-group participants and significantly more of them had accumulated additional debt or had their outstanding fees sent to private collectors. 
  • Most participants who made a payment did so in the first six months; among the 22 percent of control participants who made at least one payment, the median amount paid was $100.
  • Relief of legal debt did not affect the likelihood of new charges, convictions, or jail bookings after one year, but did significantly reduce new court action in the form of new warrants, new debt, tax intercepts, and private debt collection.
Devah Pager, Rebecca Goldstein, Helen Ho, and Bruce Western
American Sociological Association
American Sociological Review 1–25