New Journal Issue: State Monetary Sanctions and the Costs of the Criminal Legal System

March 2, 2022

Monetary sanctions – fines, fees, costs, and other financial penalties imposed on individuals when they encounter the criminal legal system – can lead to a cascade of negative effects for individuals, families, and communities. Because people are not released from criminal legal supervision until such penalties are fully paid, monetary sanctions prolong supervision, make probation violations more likely, escalate sanctions for new criminal convictions, and can result in incarceration for non-payment. Such debts also make it more difficult for defendants to pay for essential expenses, such as food, housing, healthcare, and childcare. In this special double issue of RSF, sociologists Alexes Harris (University of Washington), Mary Pattillo (Northwestern University), and Bryan L. Sykes (University of California, Irvine) and an interdisciplinary roster of contributors examine how financial penalties generate a plethora of collateral consequences in the domains of immigration, housing, health, family, the labor market, public assistance, law, and more, inextricably linking monetary sanctions to broader patterns of racial and economic inequality.

The 17 articles in this double issue are the culmination of five years of research in California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Washington. Together they represent the first cross-state study of monetary sanctions. Issue 1 looks at how the system of monetary sanctions operates, while Issue 2 examines the social consequences of such sanctions. The contributors examined each state’s statutory codes; interviewed and surveyed individuals living with criminal legal debt; observed court practices and legal logics during pre-trial, sentencing, and review hearings; collected administrative court data on the imposition of monetary sanctions over time; and interviewed and surveyed decision-makers and practitioners (judges, attorneys, probation officers, and clerks). Among the compelling findings documented: High rates of incarceration economically damage states, leading some jurisdictions to sue incarcerated individuals for the cost of jail/prison stays to mitigate the fiscal harm. Imposing monetary sanctions extends beyond the penal code and into the civil realm, blurring distinctions between civil and criminal law, with broad implications for how observed racial disparities are constructed. People of color, indigenous communities, immigrants – both documented and undocumented – and women are uniquely impacted by the system of monetary sanctions. The racially disparate impact of monetary sanctions intensifies the aggressive policing of Black and Latinx neighborhoods because these racial groups typically find it more difficult to pay. Individuals and families receiving cash and non-cash public assistance are significantly more likely to owe monetary sanctions and are less likely to pay them, prolonging their surveillance by the state. The monitoring and collection of fines, fees, and other costs extends and deepens the punishment of non-payers and individuals reentering society, and warps the very legal institutions that legislate and implement these practices.

This volume of RSF provides a timely examination of how monetary sanctions permanently bind people who are poor to the judicial system and provides comprehensive documentation of a complex, two-tiered legal system that imposes high costs on already burdened groups.

View the full open-access issue of RSF here.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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