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Research Team Releases Review of State and Local Monetary Sanctions Laws

Can’t pay a legal fine or fee? Your state might foreclose on your property, garnish your wages, suspend your driver’s license, or even restrict your voting rights.

Judge's gavel
Photo by Dario Lopez-Mills/The Associated Press

In 2016, University of Washington sociology professor Alexes Harris’ book, A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor (New York: Russell Sage), gained national attention for its examination of the use of monetary sanctions in five counties in Washington state. 

Monetary sanctions — a term, along with legal financial obligations,” that refers to the fines, fees, costs, and surcharges imposed on individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system — encompass everything from a $150 traffic ticket to a $2,500 fine for driving with a suspended license, as well as the substantial fees that defendants are charged to pay for court costs, probation, the use of public attorneys, prosecution costs, and incarceration. 

Monetary sanctions have recently become the subject of intense legal and ethical scrutiny, with criminal justice advocates and entities such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Vera Institute of Justice, Right on Crime, and even the Department of Justice, calling their constitutionality into question and shining a light on their harmful effects.

In A Pound of Flesh,” Harris reported that monetary sanctions in Washington state disproportionately punish defendants who are of color, impoverished, under-educated, or have mental and physical limitations that make it difficult for them to find stable employment. With her book acting as an important contribution to the national dialogue, Harris sought to expand her research beyond a single state. We are pleased that our funding allowed her to assemble a team of researchers from nine universities to study the legal framework, issuance, collection, and impacts of legal financial obligations in nine states. Harris and her colleagues examined federal monetary sanctions as well as those imposed in three counties and three cities within each state, making their study the first systemic review of the federal, state, and local laws regarding monetary sanctions and their impacts.

To start, gathering data from state statutes and administrative rules, case law, local codes, state and local government reports, academic books and papers, news reports, and documents produced by legal advocacy organizations, Harris and her research team analyzed and compared state law and practices, the consequences of unpaid financial obligations, and active legal challenges to sanctions in each state. The team has released its findings in its first report, titled Monetary Sanctions in the Criminal Justice System: A Review of Law and Policy in California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington.” [1]

Among other highlights, the researchers found that across the nine states, monetary sanctions are routinely imposed for both misdemeanor and felony criminal justice involvement, meaning that they account for a substantial method of legal punishment. In addition, unpaid financial obligations accrue interest and surcharges, and can trigger additional sanctions that vary in scope and severity, including driver’s license suspensions and jail sentences.

One of the team’s most significant findings was that despite the prevalence and potentially severe consequences of monetary sanctions, the United States lacks a single coherent set of laws, policies, or principles governing the imposition and enforcement of legal financial obligations.” For example, courts in Georgia can foreclose on property or garnish a person’s wages if he or she fails to pay their fees. In New York, a court can suspend an individual’s driver’s license if he or she fails to pay traffic-related fines. And in Washington state, courts can restrict voting rights if the person cannot afford to pay their legal fines or fees.

The research serves as an important confirmation of anecdotal reports that claimed widespread inconsistency regarding the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees across — and even within — individual states, as well as claims that unpaid obligations can trigger a range of penalties and spur further involvement with the criminal justice system.

Harris and her team’s assessment of the legal landscape surrounding monetary sanctions also includes reports on key litigation efforts aimed at reforming the administration and collection of fines and fees. The team found that litigation and increased public scrutiny in Georgia, Missouri, and Texas have prompted legislators in those states to actively explore opportunities for reform. As this work continues to take shape, analysis such as the kind provided by Harris and her team will allow criminal justice advocates to learn which efforts are most likely to drive reform in other localities, and which efforts have the greatest positive impact on defendants struggling with legal financial obligations.

[1] As the study continues, Harris and her team will conduct quantitative and qualitative analyses and publish additional reports on the characteristics of debtors; amounts of federal, state, and local legal financial obligations (LFOs); sentencing practices; and impacts of LFOs on debtors. These reports promise recommendations for community-based interventions, relationships between state and local LFOs, and universal, nonpartisan best practices related to the design and implementation of monetary sanctions.