Incomparable Punishments: How Economic Inequality Contributes to the Disparate Impact of Legal Fines and Fees


To pay a $286 stop sign violation, a person making $60 (pre-tax) per hour must work 4.8 hours compared to 11.4 hours for someone making $25 an hour, and at least 19.1 hours for someone making $15 an hour or less. 

In Texas, fines are the standard sentence for Class C misdemeanors encompassing most traffic, public order, city code, and other low-level infractions for which jail time is not statutorily permissible as a punishment. This study analyzes criminal case records to examine how standardized legal fines and fees for low-level charges induce racial and economic inequality in Texas. The results indicate that fine-only misdemeanors pose fundamental contradictions to formal equality–the principle that two people convicted of the same crime ought to receive the same punishment– because fines impact financially stable and low-income people differently, extracting disproportionately more money and time from African American, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged defendants.

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Key Findings:

  • Black and Latinx defendants spend more time involved with the court before a disposition; White defendants spend 159 days before a disposition compared to 218 days for Black defendants and 188 days for Latinx defendants.
  • Analysis of total fines and fees assessed show no significant differences between the dollar amount assessed between Black, White, and Latinx defendants; however, 90 days after their cases are filed, Black defendants owe, on average, $68 more than White defendants and Latinx defendants owe roughly $19 more.
  • On average, African Americans can expect to spend an additional 54 days involved with the courts for a Class C misdemeanor, and Latinx defendants will spend an additional 23 days, relative to White defendants.
Lindsay Bing, Becky Pettit, and Ilya Slavinski
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of The Social Sciences