Alexes Harris is co-editor of RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences double issue “State Monetary Sanctions and the Costs of the Criminal Legal System” with Mary Patillo (Northwestern University) and Bryan L. Sykes (University of California, Irvine). In “The Multi-State Study of Monetary Sanctions” an interdisciplinary roster of contributors draw on five years of research across California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Washington to examine how financial penalties generate a plethora of collateral consequences that inextricably link monetary sanctions to broader patterns of racial and economic inequality. In a new interview with the foundation Harris discusses the system of monetary sanctions and the consequences of monetary sanctions on people with legal debt. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexes Harris is the Presidential Term Professor and Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington. She is the author of RSF book A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor.
Q. What are monetary sanctions or legal financial obligations (LFOs) and why is it important that they be studied? What are some key points that you want people unfamiliar with the system of monetary sanctions to take away from the double issue?
Monetary sanctions or legal financial obligations are the fines and fees people encounter when they make contact with the criminal legal system – from traffic citations all the way up to felony convictions. People are charged upon conviction for the cost of a public defender, for the cost of a fine but also a fee for processing, court processing charges, DNA collection – there are a host of charges that people face. Moreover, in some jurisdictions and states, there is interest or surcharges on top of that principal sum.
It is important that we study monetary sanctions or LFOs because our analyses show that monetary sanctions are a mechanism that leads to inequality within our criminal legal system. They highlight the two-tiered nature of treatment for wealthy people versus the treatment of poor people. If you are wealthy, you can pay your fine and fee, wash your hands, and move forward. However, if you're poor, you're really tethered to the criminal legal system forever - until you are able to pay off all of your fines and fees. The punishment that poor people experience is a lot longer and much more intense due to the tethering to the criminal legal system.
Q. How do court actors try to manage the tension between monetary sanction mandates and the reality that many defendants cannot pay the mandatory fines and fees? How is this management both beneficial and detrimental to individuals with criminal legal involvement?
I think there is a real tension for many people on the ground – judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers, clerks – around the system of monetary sanctions. I will put them into two ideal typical categories, but not all of them fall neatly into these categories. Some folks on the ground, within the legal system, really support the use of legal financial obligations. They think they are a good way to hold people accountable, that they are necessary to fund the justice system, and that they allow them to monitor people. Whereas on the other side, many court officials recognize that a large proportion of the people who make contact with the criminal legal system are poor, are unhoused, have high rates of substance use disorder or mental health issues, are unemployed or underemployed. They see that tension with LFOs and believe the system is not realistic and is not really helping individuals. I think that these two groupings also mirror the general public's orientation towards folks who are in the criminal legal system. I think that this rhetoric of accountability and the need to raise revenue does a disservice to people, real people, who are processed within the criminal legal system, but it also does a disservice to society. The system of monetary sanctions does not make us safer, and it doesn't create a criminal legal system that's fair, or just, or efficient either. This is a real tension. We saw this across all of our eight states by doing court observations and in our interviews with folks; court actors fall usually fall along this continuum.
Q. What are some of your policy and practice recommendations that would mitigate some of the harmful effects of monetary sanctions?
There are several policy implications. I think it is important to couch them in two ways. One, we need incremental policy reforms to help people immediately – to give immediate relief to individuals who are suffering under the burden of legal debt. Then the other policy, the real policy reform, in my mind, is complete abolition of monetary sanctions. I do not believe within a society that is so racially and economically unjust we could ever have a just criminal legal system that is based on a system of financial penalties. It is not, and will never be, fair given the existence of inequality. That said, we do need to fight for incremental reform until we get to that moment where we can end the system of monetary sanctions entirely.
Incrementally, there are several things that can be done. One is that if people are deemed unable to make payment, for example, if someone is arrested and is unemployed, or has mental health instability, or an alcohol or drug use disorder, they should not be imposed fiscal penalties. It is not realistic to expect these folks to make payments. So, ability to pay should be assessed, which should apply to all fines, fees, restitution, any pockets of money. If a person is unable to pay, they are unable to pay anything.
We also should look at the ways in which debt creates further punishment within the criminal legal system. We need to decouple the loss or suspension of driver's licenses for people because they are too poor to pay their fines and fees. So, we should stop suspending licenses upon non-payment for a fine or fee. We need to discontinue issuing warrants for folks who have not been making regular payments. We have seen throughout our history, the ways in which the criminal legal system uses police to patrol and over-surveil communities, particularly Black communities, which can result in trauma, violence, and even death. This warrant mechanism is a key way in which the criminal legal system allows police to control, overly surveil, and pull over Black drivers. So, we need to end that warrant process as well. We also need to decouple non-payment from the right to vote. I believe anyone incarcerated should have the right to vote at any time – I know this is a sticky argument – but I do think once someone has served their time and paid their debt to society, they should have the right to vote.
Overall, we need to move forward to ultimately stop the use of monetary sanctions. Once we do that, we need to make sure all debt is expunged. Some states are ending the use of certain types of fines and fees or just eliminating the usage of fees, but not looking retrospectively at the debt that is already on the books and that is still going to cause problems. We need to also go back and expunge existing debt.
Q. LFOs can impact the mental health of individuals with legal debt. Can you discuss the ways in which having legal debt is detrimental to one’s mental health?
My colleague, Tyler Smith, and I wrote the paper, “Monetary Sanctions as Chronic and Acute Health Stressors” on the topic of mental health. Using interview data from across the eight states, we frame the analysis by arguing that monetary sanctions lead to both acute moments of stress and chronic moments of stress for individuals. Acute moments are moments like getting the monetary sanction at sentencing. That immediate bill is a stressful situation for individuals – they wonder how they are ever going to make a payment. The chronic stress that comes from monetary sanctions are things like the mandated court hearings that people have to attend. In some jurisdictions people who owe debt, even if they are regularly paying, have to appear in court every month. Folks also have to frequently report all incoming income and outgoing expenses to court clerks. Therefore, there is the chronic stress of regularly having to report to court. There is also the chronic stress of not knowing if a warrant is out for your arrest if you have not made a payment. Maybe you skipped a payment this month. Some people talked about having medical bills, for example. They would worry, "Do I have a warrant out? Should I be fearful of going outside of my door? Is my license suspended? Should I be fearful of trying to drive to work or drop my kids off at school?" Several people talked about going to the grocery store. Knowing that they have LFO bill pending, they wondered, “Can I buy enough food for the week for my kids.” There is that constant weight and a palpable stress during the interviews. People also described depressive symptoms, symptoms of anxiety, and a whole host of negative emotions related to monetary sanctions. It is a different dimension that we have not really studied previously in terms of how the criminal legal system, through monetary sanctions, invades individuals’ lives. It becomes a sort of internal punishment that they carry around with them.
Q. The relationship between housing instability and criminal legal involvement is bidirectional, meaning that housing instability can lead to criminal legal involvement and criminal legal involvement can lead to housing instability. Can you talk briefly about this relationship and how monetary sanctions factor into it?
This was a great analysis that my colleague Mary Patillo did with her colleagues in one of the papers from our project. In the paper “Monetary Sanctions and Housing Instability,” they look at this bidirectionality. So, if my housing and ability to pay rent is unstable, I could be evicted. Then, I could be out on the street and get citations for being homeless, basically, a citation for being poor. That can then land me in the court system, tethered with legal financial obligations, and unable to pay both the court my debt but also to secure housing.
Another factor can be having LFOs related to some type of offense or citation, and then not being able to pay for secure housing. In some jurisdictions, the courts will transfer that debt to private collection agencies, so then your credit is harmed. That then affects your ability to secure an apartment or buy a home. Not to mention how credit affects employment, access to home and car loans, and things like that. So that there is this this bidirectionality, both in housing but also other realms of our lives in terms of the ability to drive and vote, but also access employment. You see this negative cycle that people are stuck in if they are poor. James Baldwin writes that in our society it is expensive to be poor. And it's expensive in so many different ways. Part of that is being linked to the criminal legal system but also the criminal legal system targeting poor people.
Q. While monetary sanctions are intended to punish individuals with criminal legal involvement, the negative impacts of monetary sanctions radiate out to their social networks. Can you briefly explain why that is and the negative effects monetary sanctions have on the family and friends of people with criminal legal involvement?
This was another analysis by a team of graduate students on our monetary sanctions project, “Monetary Sanctions and Symbiotic Harms.” Through the interviews, they explore how people talk about the reliance on other family members to help them pay their legal financial obligations. Because of this reliance, it becomes a shared punishment; it is not a punishment just for one individual, but to all of their family members. Many times family members want to help support you with this debt. Other times, it creates lots of strain, and having to ask multiple people to help you with that financial debt. People also describe not being able to pull their own weight in a household – they cannot help with the rent, they cannot help with the utility bills, and things like that. Therefore, this is another way in which it leads to individual's own anxiety and frustration, but that internalized punishment is now shared with people in your family and friendship network. It highlights the way that monetary sanctions are a particularly egregious punishment in that it is not just for an individual. It is also for their family, it is for their children, and even for their community. It is a shared punishment and marginalization.
Q. Monetary sanctions exacerbate disparities in criminal legal system contact and undermine the notion of equal protection under the law. How do LFOs contribute to inequality and which groups suffer disproportionately due to uniform sentencing of monetary sanctions?
This goes back to the notion of a two-tiered system of justice, and monetary sanctions clearly treat people with means differently than people without means. For people who are poor, it is an indeterminate sentence. For people with money, it is a determinant sentence. If you are going to jail or prison, you get the incarceration time and then you get the financial amount on the day of sentencing. If you can pay it, once you serve your incarcerative time and pay, you are done with your sentence. However, for people who are poor, it is an indeterminate sentence - you never know when or if you will ever be able to complete that sentence. That is why I refer to LFOs in my book, A Pound of Flesh, as a permanent punishment. Monetary sanctions are literally a permanent punishment for poor people, simply because they are poor, and for no other reason.
Another way in which LFOs disparately affect people is due to the history and the current way that the criminal legal system operates. Black individuals, Native American individuals, and Latino individuals disproportionately come into contact with the criminal legal system – via arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration. At each discretion point, people of color receive harsher outcomes than white people. Because there is this disproportionate rate of contact, by nature, the same people are going to carry a disproportionate burden of LFO debt.
In one of the analyses that we have done recently, we looked at the level of community debt. We looked in neighborhoods in Washington State and certain census tracts have a higher amount of LFO burden sentence per capita. Those census tracts are poorer tracts and are non-white tracts. So, poor communities and communities of color are disproportionately being sentenced to LFO debt. In addition, we found that in the long term, three years down the road, data show that those census tracts – what we call “debtors blocks” – actually have higher rates of poverty than they did three years earlier. This is not a causal analysis, but it is an association where it appears that LFO sentences are related to an exacerbation of poverty in communities. Individuals of color are disproportionately incarcerated and disproportionately bear the burden of LFO debt and poor people are treated very differently within the system of monetary sanctions solely because they are poor. Furthermore, our research suggests that even communities of color and poor communities are shown to have a disproportionate burden of LFO sentences.
Regardless of the way we cut and frame it, the system of monetary sanctions is a very egregious, inefficient, unjust, and horrible punishment schema. I am not a conspiracy theorist, I say this frequently, but I argue that if I were tasked to create the perfect system of social stratification, this would be it. This is a perfect system to continue the surveillance, the social control, marginalization, oppression, particularly of poor people and people of color, in our society.