Research team tracks complex web of criminal-justice monetary sanctions in 9 states

Research team tracks complex web of criminal-justice monetary sanctions in 9 states

Research team tracks complex web of criminal-justice monetary sanctions in 9 states

New York, NY, April 21th, 2017 – The phrase “criminal justice system” may conjure images of courtrooms, juries and prison. But, increasingly, people’s wallets are the target of punishment, according to Karin Martin, a professor of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Martin is the lead investigator for New York as part of a research project at nine universities that is exploring the role of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. They recently completed a review of financial punishments in their home states. And based on their preliminary findings, the impact to a person’s pocketbook depends largely on his or her location on a map.

“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, lead Primary Investigator and a Sociologist at the University of Washington. “It’s a mess, and there are few guidelines and no national framework governing the use of monetary sanctions.”

Monetary sanctions 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. The result is a national patchwork of financial punishments, which the research team is working to blueprint as part of a five-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

On April 20th, 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: California (Bryan Sykes), Georgia (Sarah Shannon), Illinois (Mary Pattillo), Minnesota (Chris Uggen), Missouri (Beth Huebner), New York (Karin Martin), North Carolina (April Fernandes), Texas (Becky Pettit) and Washington (Alexes Harris). These states account for more than one-third of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated people. These nine states also 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.

New York stands out for having a variety of mandatory surcharges for every level of offense: violations ($95), misdemeanors ($175), and felonies ($300). New York also has hefty penalties for driving without a license ($750) and the “Driver Responsibility Assessment” that requires payments of up to $250 every year for three consecutive years for certain offenses. New York also has one of the harshest policies about garnishing any money people earn or receive while they are in prison. While the average prison wage is about $1 per day, up to 40% of these wages can be taken to pay for monetary sanctions. But if someone receives money from outside (e.g. from family), then the state can take up to 100% of these receipts.

Usually, the offense, rather than the person’s ability to pay, determines the amount of the monetary sanction. Martin and her colleagues found that judges and other officers of the court often have little leeway in imposing monetary sanctions. In New York, judges have very little discretion for charging some surcharges and fees. In Washington, judges can waive interest payments on certain fines once the principal has been paid. In general, these sanctions cannot be revoked – only paid.

“What monetary sanction you get can depend on where you are, not only in the country, but which county, which courthouse, and even which judge,” said Martin.

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, people still end up in jail due to non-payment, since courts can still issue warrants for persistent failure to pay or to comply with the conditions of probation related to paying monetary sanctions. Since people in the criminal justice system are more likely to be poor, the consequences for falling behind in payments can be far-reaching.

The researchers have found that failure to pay a fine can lead to suspension of a driver’s license, which can affect a person’s ability to get to a job. In many states, non-payment can affect a person’s right to vote, as Martin wrote about in a Washington Post op-ed.

The absence of a national framework governing monetary sanctions ultimately led to this variation. But in 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice went so far as to issue a “Dear Colleague” letter on fines and fees. In 2015, Missouri’s Ferguson Commission noted how monetary sanctions can contribute to inequality in the 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.

“We need to start asking ourselves if it’s truly worth trying to extract money from those least able to pay, when doing so is costly both to taxpayers and to the person who owes,” said Martin. “What are we trying to achieve with a system of punishment that many people can never successfully escape?”

Martin and her colleagues are building on this initial review by conducting analyses in eight states of fines and fees from state court data, observing court proceedings and interviewing court officers and debtors.

The national research team endeavors will help resolve the details of monetary sanctions and how they differ among states, they will also examine, among other questions, the underlying question of why monetary sanctions have become such a prominent part of the modern criminal justice system nationally.

About John Jay College of Criminal Justice: An international leader in educating for justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York offers a rich liberal arts and professional studies curriculum to upwards of 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students from more than 135 nations.  In teaching, scholarship and research, the College approaches justice as an applied art and science in service to society and as an ongoing conversation about fundamental human desires for fairness, equality and the rule of law. For more information, visit www.jjay.cuny.edu.

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For more information, contact Martin at kamartin@jjay.cuny.edu.