On Thin Ice: Bureaucratic Processes of Monetary Sanctions and Job Insecurity

This article examines the connection between court debt collection practices and their effect on employment opportunities. The text analyzes three mechanisms used to enforce and monitor the payment of court fines and fees: compliance review hearings, failure to appear warrants, and driver’s license suspensions. The authors conducted the research for this report by interviewing residents of Illinois and Washington involved in felony and misdemeanor cases, and by watching court proceedings in both states.  

You can read the full text of the article here

Key findings

  • 78 percent of Illinois respondents reported that they were assessed more than $1,000 in fines and fees and 17 percent of those people stated that they owed more than $10,000. 
  • 85 percent of respondents in Washington state reported owing more than $1,000 of court debt and 48 percent of those people reported owing more than $10,000 in their lifetimes. 
  • Many interview respondents reported that they were unaware of the total amount of court fines and fees they were ordered to pay and they were most concerned with avoiding incarceration or prolonged involvement in the criminal justice system. 
  • Each of the seven Illinois counties and two of the Washington jurisdictions that were studied mandated in-person review hearings when fines and fees were not paid in a timely manner. Some respondents reported that attending these hearings led to missed days of work, lower wages, and strained relationships with employers. 
  • In some states, failure to attend payment compliance hearings can lead to a bench warrant. Bond amounts could be set at the total amount of fines and fees owed, and short stays in jail, even a few days, can cause people to lose their jobs. 
  • Debt-based driver’s license suspensions make it difficult for people to get to work so they can pay off their fines and fees, especially if public transportation is not a viable alternative. In Illinois and Washington, driving on a suspended license is a misdemeanor so people risk getting assessed more fines and fees and more system involvement if they continue to drive. 
  • Without a valid license, people are excluded from some job opportunities.   
Michele Cadigan, University of Washington and Gabriela Kirk, Northwestern University
Russell Sage Foundation