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Monetary Myopia: An Examination of Institutional Response to Revenue From Monetary Sanctions for Misdemeanors

Highlights

As of FY 2015, Iowa had $682.2 million in outstanding court debt, which is a 475% increase from the amount owed in 1998.

This study assesses the use of fines and fees for misdemeanor crimes in Nevada and Iowa to highlight the perverse incentives embedded in the practice of using courts as revenue centers. The article proposes the concept of “monetary myopia,” or a short-sighted focus on revenue at the expense of other concerns, to explain the states’ behavior. Martin warns that monetary myopia maintains the size and scope of the criminal justice system and concludes that monetary myopia’s persistent pursuit of revenue helps fuel a cycle of perpetual criminal justice contact while fostering inequitable punishment.

You can read the full study here, but it is behind a paywall.

“The policy subconsciously hopes for more crime. A good year in raising administrative assessment fees is a year when the crime rate goes up; a bad year is when the crime rate goes down. Success in raising administrative assessment fees depends in large part on our failure to prevent crime.” -Nevada Judges Association President Stephen Dahl

Key Findings for Nevada
  • Nevada’s Supreme Court receives more than half of its funding from fees. Overall, Nevada’s judiciary branch received 49% of its funding from fees in 2014.
  • In 2016, the average administrative assessment (“fee”) was $57. Fees are added on top of fines; a fine of $5 comes with a minimum fee of $30, which effectively makes the lowest fine $35.
  • If a person fails to pay their debt, courts can impose a collection fee of $100, $500, or 10% of the amount owed. Then, the entity that collects payment can impose a collection fee not to exceed $50,000 or 35% of the debt owed.
  • People who fail to pay are subject to being reported to credit agencies, lien/civil judgments, “attachment or garnishment of property, wages or other money,” driver’s license suspension, and/or incarceration. Courts can use any combination allowed by state statute; some courts issue arrest warrants for all unpaid traffic tickets, and then charges an additional $150 “warrant fee” and a $100 late fee.
Key Findings for Iowa
  • “For every violation of state law, city ordinance, or county ordinance, the court must impose a “criminal penalty surcharge” equal to 35% of the fine (or forfeiture). ”
  • As of FY 2015, Iowa had $682.2 million in outstanding court debt, which is a 475% increase from the amount owed in 1998.
  • Most of the revenue that Iowa collects from fines and fees goes to the state general fund (not the judiciary), which means Iowa’s collections system functions as a tax on criminal justice involvement. It is considered a statewide priority, and many branches of Iowa’s state government are concerned with collections.
Recommendations
  • Jurisdictions should implement “day fines” (means adjusted fines). If day fines are implemented, minimum fines should not be a feature.
  • The analysis performed in this study should be expanded to other states.
  • We don’t know how much it costs to generate revenue through fines and fees; researchers should perform a rigorous cost-benefit analysis for the collections system itself.
Karin Martin
Criminal Justice Policy Review, 29(6–7), 630–662.
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