Monetary Sanctions and Symbiotic Harms


Women relatives, especially mothers, are most likely to pay someone’s LFOs, exposing them to considerable financial liability.

When justice-involved individuals cannot afford their legal debts, their families who provide financial support suffer the unintended negative effects of punishment– also known as symbiotic harms.  This study analyzes data from interviews with 140  people who have legal debt and 96 court actors in Georgia and Missouri to identify how monetary sanctions harm the families of adults with legal debt. The authors found that family members are coerced into paying relatives’ monetary sanctions thus increasing their financial strain, emotional distress, and interpersonal conflicts. 

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • Financial support to pay legal debts came from mothers (33 percent), partners (23 percent), fathers and siblings (12 percent each), friends (seven percent), and children (5 percent).
  • Families take out loans, use tax refunds and pawn valuable assets to help pay legal debt.
  • Unlike other penal sanctions, monetary sanctions are transferable because the state is indifferent to who pays for it. 


  • Eliminate legal penalties for non-payment to mitigate the harm to families.
  • Decouple household finances from assessments of indigence and ability to pay.
Daniel J. Boches, Brittany T. Martin, Andrea Giuffre, Amairini Sanchez, Aubrianne L. Sutherland, & Sarah K.S. Shannon
RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of The Social Sciences