Layaway Freedom: Coercive Financialization in the Criminal Legal System

  • Because LFOs were an obligation that low-income defendants were especially vulnerable to failing, new punishments were easily construed as of their own doing.
  • The repeated extensions of time and the emphasis on personal responsibility assume that nonpayment is an issue of cash flow or budgeting, rather than absolute lack.

Using data from courtroom observations and interviews with court actors and people paying their court debt in Illinois, the authors study financialization in the criminal legal system, including the practice of extending payment plans, or layaway, to manage court debt and gain freedom. The text discusses how the creditor/debtor relationship treats freedom as a commodity, confuses court processes and expands the financial sector into domains that obligate participation, and the implications of these concepts for both economic and criminal-legal sociology. 

You can access the full article here

Key Findings: 

  • Of 2,036 unique cases observed, monetary sanctions were discussed in 716 of those cases
  • White (28 percent) and Black (24 percent) men were the groups most frequently observed, followed by white women (14 percent) and Hispanic men 13 percent). 
  • Defendants were held in custody In only 7 percent of the cases that involved LFOs, but intensive monitoring, more severe consequences for new infractions, arrest warrants for failing to appear at court dates, and the threat of jail for nonpayment of LFOs make incarceration an ever present reality. 
  • In 236 of the 716 cases where monetary obligations were discussed, there was no mention at all of the underlying criminal charge, only the financial charge. 
  • The menu of prices for criminal infractions in Illinois was disorganized and varied across courtrooms and counties. 
  • A majority of interviewees (59 percent) had total incomes of under $1,500 per month, and just over half were unemployed or had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. 
  • 40 of the 68 people with court fines and fees interviewed reported LFOs greater than or equal to their full month’s income, and as a result most of them were under a court ordered payment schedule. 
  • In interviews with court personnel, references to “more time” were pervasive, often describing a practice of utilizing payment plans to prolong the time to make payments–maintaining both the debt and the supervisory relationship. 
  • Nonpayment of fines and fees made defendants continuously vulnerable to arrest. 
  • When fines and fees are sent to collections, the state’s attorney can add an additional fee of 30% of the delinquent amount. In addition to the collections fee, the court clerk’s office can add a delinquency amount equal to a percentage of the unpaid assessments.
Mary Pattillo and Gabriela Kirk
Northwestern University
American Journal of Sociology