RSF author Alexes Harris recently appeared on the Scholars Strategy Network’s No Jargon podcast to discuss the research in her her book, A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor. In the book, Harris analyzes the rise of monetary sanctions, including fines and court fees, in the U.S. criminal justice system. Drawing from an eight-year investigation of court practices in Washington state, Harris reveals how fees for public defenders and other processing charges penalize low-income defendants. Until these debts are paid in full, individuals remain under judicial supervision, subject to court summons, warrants, and jail stays. By permanently binding poor offenders to the judicial system, monetary sanctions create a two-tiered legal system that perpetuates racial and economic inequality.
A Pound of Flesh has been part of the growing national discussion on the inequalities perpetuated by the U.S. criminal justice system. Harris’s work has been cited by top media outlets, including the New York Times, the Atlantic, USA Today, Bloomberg, the Nation, and the Washington Post, among others. In 2016, the editorial board of the Seattle Times published an editorial calling for the reassessment of monetary sanctions in Washington state, based on Harris’s findings. “Washington’s legal financial-obligation system effectively builds a debtors’ prison and should be reformed,” they wrote. Legal fines and fees were also the subject of an in-depth NPR series, “Guilty and Charged,” for which Harris was interviewed, and gained additional attention after a report on the extensive use of high court fines in St. Louis County was released the week after the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson.