Justice by Geography: The Role of Monetary Sanctions Across Communities


In courts where court actors felt less pressure to fund their local courthouses, monetary sanctions were lower and consequences for nonpayment less severe.

Although state statutes often dictate the amount of fines and fees imposed, local courts have significant discretion in how they carry out the laws and there is variation between courts based on localized cultures and interpersonal dynamics in the courts. This article explores how monetary sanctions are imposed and their relationship with the courts’ acquaintance density– familiarity between court actors and residents– across urban, suburban, and rural communities. Using data from ethnographic observations and qualitative interviews from courtrooms across four states, the authors concluded that rural areas have greater acquaintance density, which promotes greater flexibility and individualization for defendants, while workgroups in urban courts lead to routinization when assessing monetary sanctions. Courtroom actors’ familiarity with defendants did not lead to less monetary sanctions imposed, but court actors’ familiarity with each other did allow for better client outcomes.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Urban courts are less likely to tailor monetary sanctions to individual circumstances or the ability to pay and are more likely to be characterized by routinization.
  • Smaller rural or suburban courts’ sentencing has more variation, and community ties led to uneven application.
  • Urban courts often have more resources to offer payment plans or community service to soften the financial impact than rural jurisdictions.
  • Urban courts had lower mean amounts of monetary sanctions than smaller rural or suburban communities because judges regularly waived fines that were within their discretion.
  • Court actors’ familiarity with defendants in rural courts did not lead to lower financial penalties.
  • Rural counties shared their desire to shift the burden of revenue generation from residents to visitors.
Gabriela Kirk, Kristina J. Thompson, Beth M. Huebner, Christopher Uggen, and Sarah K.S. Shannon
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences