Not One but Many: Monetary Punishment and the Fergusons of America

In this article for Sociological Forum, Professors Kasey Hendricks and Daina Cheyenne Harvey examine whether Ferguson’s fines and fees practices are typical among local governments. They measure how fines and fees vary across cities and counties by analyzing court-imposed costs in criminal and civil cases and detail how the assessment of these monetary sanctions formalize inequality along racial lines. The authors also provide recommendations to reform how fines and fees are assessed.

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

Key Findings
  • “On average, monetary punishment increases by $34,864 per 100,000 residents for every 1% increase in the black population.”
  • “Each 1% [increase] in police spending over time increases [amounts] of monetary punishment by $344.”
  • “Model 1 shows that when the share of noncitizens increases by 1%, rates of [fines and fees] increase by $53,112. Although immigrants are less likely to commit crime and cities with concentrated levels of immigration are among the safest in the country, communities with higher shares of noncitizens pay larger amounts of legal sanctions when crime is held constant.”
  • Debt forgiveness should be granted to those unable to pay.
  • Payment of fines and fees should never be a precondition for the right to vote.
  • Monetary sanctions could be adjusted by levels of income and net worth. There should also be a series of qualifications for vulnerable populations, like the unemployed, infirm, or single parents, in which individuals are eligible to delay debt, freeze the accumulating interest, reduce the sanctioned amount, or be exempted from penalty altogether.
  • Revenue generated from the collection of fines and fees should “be redirected back to members of the communities devastated by these sanctions.” Money from monetary punishment could be redistributed to finance community-based programs for rehabilitation services, vocational training, educational investment, and job guarantee initiatives as well as subsidized mortgages, small business loans, and other community valorization projects.
  • States and cities should move to prevent institutional conflicts of interest and collusion: “To sever these competing interests between public finance and public safety… the institutions that comprise the criminal justice system should not link their own solvency to law enforcement and adjudication practices.”
Kasey Henricks, University of Tennessee, Daina Cheyenne Harvey, College of the Holy Cross