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“Cities have begun imposing fines not to reform behavior but as a revenue stream,” said Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. (Carlos Delgado/Associated Press Images for NADCP)

New York — The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced a series of grants focused on the use of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. LJAF will fund seven projects as part of a broader strategy to coordinate, develop, and strengthen nationwide litigation efforts in this area and to deepen the field’s understanding of court-imposed monetary penalties.

LJAF’s investment comes amid increased attention to the use of fines and fees to fund local government budgets. In many jurisdictions nationwide, individuals convicted of minor crimes receive extensive fines, which can lead to jail time if they go unpaid. For example, the 2015 Department of Justice report on civil rights violations in Ferguson, Missouri, noted that by late 2014 more than three-quarters of the city’s population was subject to arrest warrants, almost all of which were issued because of a failure to pay a fine or a single failure to appear in court.

“We are putting people behind bars for their inability to pay fines even when we wouldn’t imagine throwing someone in jail for the underlying violation, which could be something as ordinary as jaywalking or driving with a broken tail light,” said Sam Brooke at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Also, convicted offenders who have completed their sentence of incarceration often leave prison with extensive debts, which, if unpaid, can result in numerous adverse outcomes that can thwart successful reentry back into society.

“The current system has dire consequences for a large number of Americans,” said Dr. Alexes Harris, associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington. “As a result of their inability to pay, debtors have their drivers' licenses suspended, receive regular summons to court and warrants, and are even arrested and incarcerated."

“We are seeing fines and fees completely disassociated from any larger criminal justice mission,” said Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Cities have begun imposing fines not to reform behavior but as a revenue stream.”

LJAF has pledged funds to support strategic litigation efforts around fees and fines, as this approach can dramatically accelerate policy changes on monetary sanctions and the unfair practices surrounding the collection of debt. Further, litigation will highlight the statutory frameworks that must be changed in order to implement fairer policies. Litigation grant recipients include:

  • The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), to serve as the coordinating hub for national litigation efforts against fines and fees, and to expand its work to reform court-debt practices; and
  • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to work with SPLC to develop a national strategy at both the state and federal levels, and to litigate across the country to stop the jailing of the poor and to establish fair hearings.

With these grants, LJAF has also become one of the leading funders of research into monetary penalties and their impacts. The new research projects funded by LJAF will provide critical empirical evidence on the extent of the problem. Research grant recipients include:

  • The University of Washington and Professor Alexes Harris, who will be partnering with researchers in eight states to analyze the scope and impact of criminal justice fines and fees;
  • The Juvenile Justice Center, which will explore how legal monetary sanctions affect young people who are too young to legally sign contracts or work full time yet face jail sentences for failure to pay;
  • The Regents of the University of California and Professor Beth Colgan, who are researching non-incarcerative alternatives to fines and fees; and
  • The Brennan Center and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which are conducting a fiscal impact study to measure when approaches to issuing and collecting fines and fees make financial sense.

“We are optimistic that a well-coordinated, bipartisan national impact litigation strategy in this area will move the needle further and faster than statehouse policy efforts alone,” said LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Anne Milgram. “The goal of our criminal justice system should be to reduce the number of repeat offenses, not to trap individuals in a perpetual cycle of debt and punishment.”