The UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review (CJLR) is an annual journal that focuses on current topics in criminal law, policy, and practice.
Volume 4, Issue 1, 2020
UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review
Table of Contents
In the years since Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, policymakers and advocates have pushed for reforms to both police practices and systems of fines and fees. The connection between fines and fees enforcement tactics and police violence remains an important focus for reforms. Police play a significant role in driving up the volume and amounts of fines and fees imposed, and they play a critical role in city and state collection efforts. The use of police as debt imposers and collectors creates opportunities for police violence—both physical use of force, as well as more nuanced forms of violence through the exertion of coercion, fear, and control. In this piece, I argue that specific policing tactics used to impose and collect fines and fees, and the wide latitude given to police via Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to engage in such tactics, facilitates conditions similar to those in Ferguson and results in unnecessary and oppressive police violence. To combat this, I argue that fines and fees reforms must focus on the role of law enforcement in such systems, and how that role must be greatly limited to prevent additional violence.
Monetary sanctions include fines, fees, restitution, surcharges, interest, and other costs imposed on people who are convicted of crimes ranging from traffic violations to violent felonies. We analyze how people in the court system theorize about monetary sanctions with regards to four kinds of justice: constitutional, retributive, procedural, and distributive justice. Drawing on qualitative interviews with sixty-eight people sentenced to pay monetary sanctions in Illinois, we identify five themes that illuminate how respondents think about these forms of justice: monetary sanctions are: (1) justifiable punishment, (2) impossible to pay due to poverty, (3) double punishment, (4) extortion, and (5) collected by an opaque and greedy state. We find that for defendants in the criminal justice system, monetary sanctions serve some retributive aims, but do not align with the other three domains of justice. We discuss the policy implications of these findings.
Child support is one of many debts that accumulate for poor nonresident parents during and after incarceration. As with legal financial obligations, child support debt functions as a form of cost recovery to the state, includes other fees, costs, and interest added onto the original child support order, and triggers aggressive enforcement measures. This Article focuses on child support policies that contribute to the debt burden held by the most disadvantaged parents, who are more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system and a history of incarceration. The Article first addresses cost recovery by the child support program and then discusses child support debt as a collateral consequence of incarceration. The Article also points to key factors driving this debt, including support orders that are not based on ability to pay, and identifies enforcement strategies that can further reduce nonresident parents’ ability to pay these debts, such as incarceration and driver’s license suspension. We identify recent policy efforts that address the causes and consequences of accruing unmanageable debt, including during periods of incarceration. The Article concludes with policy recommendations which would prioritize children’s wellbeing over cost recovery and help disadvantaged parents make consistent child support payments, participate in the job market, and maintain family relationships.
Although I have provided direct services and engaged in litigation related to municipal fines & fees in New York City, monetary sanctions are not my area of legal expertise. Bearing that in mind, I am offering these thoughts in my capacity as a scholar of law, race, and money, and more importantly, as an organizer for economic justice. I hope the essay facilitates constructive conversations about the frameworks we use to analyze the political economy of monetary sanctions and mass incarceration. I am grateful to the UCLA Criminal Justice Law Review and the organizers of “Progressing Reform of Fees and Fines: Towards A Research and Policy Agenda Conference”, hosted at Harvard Law School, for the opportunity to share these reflections.
Fiscal Pressures, the Great Recession, and Monetary Sanctions in Washington Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
Many municipal governments have come to depend heavily on fines and fees generated by the criminal justice system. This essay uses data from all courts of limited jurisdiction (municipal and district courts) in Washington State between 2000 and 2014 to evaluate the relationships between local government finances, the Great Recession, and the imposition of debt through the criminal justice system. I find that municipalities issued more criminal justice debt during and after the recession across Washington, but that government finances as measured by tax receipts and expenditures per capita were weakly related to sentencing practices. These findings suggest that macroeconomic fiscal pressures may be drivers of enforcement and prosecutorial practices through increasing case volumes, but that macroeconomic pressures and local fiscal pressures did not appear to shift court sentencing practices in Washington during the Great Recession.
In North Carolina, one in seven adult drivers currently has a suspended license for nondriving related reasons. As in many other states, in North Carolina, driver’s licenses are commonly suspended, for reasons unrelated to safety, when a person fails to appear in court in response to notice of a traffic court date or fails to pay traffic fines. Notices of traffic court dates are sent by mail, typically to the address on record at the Department of Motor Vehicles, as are subsequent notices that the consequence for nonappearance will be a driver’s license suspension. To better understand the effects of these driver’s license suspensions and whether individuals are even aware of the suspensions, we sought to survey a randomly selected 300 people in Wake County, North Carolina who had their licenses suspended between 2017–2018. We sent these surveys by mail and found something unexpected and unrelated to many of the survey questions themselves: that the addresses on file for individuals whose licenses had been suspended were often inaccurate. Over one-third of these mail surveys were returned to sender. These undeliverable mailings suggest that large numbers of people, numbering perhaps in the hundreds of thousands in North Carolina, never receive actual notice of either their court date or the drastic consequence of nonappearance. Further, they may have no idea that the state has suspended their license, and as a result, may suffer severe consequences if later stopped for driving with a revoked license. We conclude by discussing the due process and policy problems implied by these findings.
Monetary sanctions have long been a part of the U.S. criminal justice system but have received increasing attention from the public as well as legal scholars and social science research in recent years. This essay describes initial findings from the Multi-State Study of Monetary Sanctions, a multi-method study designed to build on the prior research on legal financial obligations (LFOs) by examining the multi-tiered systems of monetary sanctions operating within eight states representing key regions of the United States (California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Texas and Washington). Our research explores the constantly changing legal environment and documents how the law is practiced on the ground. We expand on prior research by engaging a large and diverse group of people who owe legal debt and criminaljustice stakeholders. We augment these data with systematic court observations across different jurisdiction sizes and court levels. In doing so, we fill important gaps in the current understanding of U.S. systems of monetary and provide findings that can be used for guiding policy.