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Fines and Monetary Sanctions

This research paper describes the categories of criminal legal fines and fees, and details how these costs can worsen social inequality. The author argues that because communities of color and people who are poor are disproportionately represented in the legal system, court debt can cause undue hardship and prolonged system involvement. The article also discusses the additional costs that people can incur to settle their debt and possible consequences of nonpayment of court fines and fees. 

You can read the full text of the research paper here, but it is behind a paywall. 

Key findings

  • More than 25 states have laws that permit additional costs to be imposed on people for late payments, incomplete payments, and nonpayment of court debt. 
  • Although state laws prohibit intimidating and incarcerating people who owe civil debt, cases in California and Missouri suggest that partnerships between prosecutors and private credit agencies have led to debtors being threatened with incarceration for lack of payment. 
  • In 2007, 33 percent of Washington State’s misdemeanor criminal docket was related to driving with a suspended license due to unpaid traffic and parking tickets and failure to appear in court. (A 2012 amendment to Washington state law restricted driver’s license suspensions to cases where a person failed to pay tickets related to moving violations.) 
  • A warrant issued for nonpayment of court fines and fees and failure to appear can lead to the loss of a job and federal or state benefits, and serve as a precondition for incarceration. 

Highlights

  • In 2013, at least $166,870 of taxpayer dollars in New Hampshire was spent to incarcerate people who owed $75,850 of court debt that was never collected. 

Recommendations

  • States should consider eliminating all non-restitution fines, fees, surcharges, interest, and collection charges for felony convictions. 
  • All justice-related debt should be collected as a civil matter. Warrants and incarceration should never be used to compel payment. 
  • Fines for traffic offenses and municipal code violations could be calculated using the day fines system. 
  • Courts could create a credit system for indigent defendants which would permit judges to offset a certain amount of court debt to reward progress towards rehabilitation such as GED or attainment of a high school diploma or regular attendance at support group meetings. 
  • States should identify ways to prioritize public safety by developing safety nets such as diversion programs that support underlying problems that lead to criminal system involvement.
  • Reentry programs could be structured to help people after they are released from prison such as providing state-issued identification. 
Alexes Harris
University of Washington
Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Criminology
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