Pay Unto Caesar: Breaches of Justice in the Monetary Sanctions Regime

In this report, the authors analyze how people in the court system think about monetary sanctions with regard to constitutional, retributive, procedural and distributive justice. Using information from interviews with sixty-eight people sentenced to pay monetary sanctions in Illinois, the authors categorize responses to monetary sanctions: (1) justifiable punishment, (2) impossible to pay due to poverty, (3) double punishment, (4) extortion and (5) collected by an opaque and greedy state. The authors conclude that monetary sanctions do serve some retributive justice aims and discuss the implications of these findings. 

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  • People interviewed believe in retributive justice, recognizing that there are consequences to law breaking and the authority of the judicial system to impose penalties. 
  • There was a common sense that some monetary punishment was just, but the degree of punishment given their financial means was out of balance .
  • Many felt that having done jail time was an appropriate punishment for their crime, but that adding monetary sanctions they could not pay was disproportionate.
  • Even when they had not done jail time, many thought that probation alone obviated the rationale for additional sanctions. 
  • The piling on of fees was also a breach of respondents’ sense of retributive justice and the threat of incarceration and other punishments were strong breaches of procedural justice. 
  • Structural asymmetries in the courtroom and large power imbalances throughout the process were viewed as unfair and akin to extortion because the threat of jail is real, legal and so unfavorable. 
  • Many interviewees had little knowledge of where their dollars were going and did not receive a tally of what they owed, raising concerns about procedural justice.
Mary Pattillo and Gabriela Kirk