Criminologist Beth Huebner part of research team tracking complex web of monetary sanctions in 9 states
The phrase “criminal justice system” may conjure images of courtrooms, juries and prison.
Less obvious is that when justice is doled out, it increasingly impacts the pocketbook.
Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, is working with a team of researchers at nine universities across the country who are exploring the role that monetary sanctions play in the criminal justice system.
Her interest grew out of issues exposed in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
“The challenges highlighted so prominently in Ferguson can be found in many communities in Missouri and across the nation,” Huebner said.
Huebner, working with research assistant Kristina Garrity, has been studying the often uneven way monetary sanctions are levied in different jurisdictions. Preliminary findings suggest the impact on a person’s pocketbook depends largely on his or her location on a map.
Monetary sanctions can include fines, court fees, restitution, surcharges and even interest on unpaid sanctions. They can be imposed for offenses ranging from traffic violations and misdemeanors to felony convictions.
Though these types of financial punishments have a long history in the United States, state and local governments have been imposing monetary sanctions with increasing frequency over the past 30 years.
“There is an extreme amount of variation – both between states and within states – on how, when and where monetary sanctions are imposed by court officials,” said Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who has taken the lead on the collaborative efforts of the researchers. “It’s a mess, and there are few guidelines and no national framework governing the use of sanctions.”
The researchers are looking to create a blueprint of financial punishments as part of a five-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
On April 20, the group released a detailed report of the first year of their work, which was a comprehensive review of financial punishments, law and policy across nine states: Missouri, Washington, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina and Texas.
These nine states account for more than one-third of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people, and are home to the more than 40 percent of people in the U.S. who are under community-based supervision.
In general, the researchers found wide variation on the fee amount, the circumstances in which they’re imposed and even when courts allow people to pay their fees. But all nine states impose monetary sanctions on a routine basis.
In some states, the fines are specific: For example, Washington, North Carolina and Georgia have detailed lists of mandatory fees for each offense. Other states, like Texas and Minnesota, specify only maximum fines for certain crimes.
In Missouri, Huebner have been studying variations between practices in urban and rural areas of the state.
“Most research and policy has been focused on residents of urban areas, but residents of rural areas bear the same costs of a conviction and often have less access to services,” Huebner said. “It is essential to help develop policy that addresses the needs of the broad citizen base in Missouri.”
Missouri courts are advised to consider a person’s ability to pay when imposing certain fines. But these are exceptions. And in general, these sanctions cannot be dismissed – only paid.
The researchers also found variation among states and municipalities not just in the size of the monetary fines and the crimes for which they are imposed, but also the consequences for failure to pay. Though debtors’ prisons have long been abolished, courts can still issue warrants for persistent nonpayment or impose other penalties.
Since people in the criminal justice system are more likely to be poor, the consequences for falling behind in payments can be far-reaching.
“For many citizens, criminal justice debt adds to mounting medical bills, student-loan debt and costs associated with essential needs like housing and food,” Huebner said. “Many residents report feeling like they are buried in debt and do not know the best way to get back on their feet.”
Huebner and Garrity have lately been continuing their research by conducting interviews with people who have accrued debt because of monetary sanctions. They hope to gain a better understanding of the challenges people face to move past these penalties and not recidivate into the criminal justice system.
As these and other efforts draw attention to the disparate monetary sanction policies across states, they may prompt states to revisit those policies.
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