Summary and Keywords
Despite the central role that fines and other fiscal penalties play in systems of criminal justice, they have received relatively little scholarly attention. Court systems impose fines and other monetary sanctions in response to minor administrative and traffic offenses as well as for more serious criminal offenses. Monetary sanctions are intended to provide a deterrent punishment to reduce lawbreaking, to provide opportunities for accountability through financial restitution, to restore harm caused to victims of crime, and to fund the operation and administration of courts and criminal justice systems. Fines, fees, and other monetary sanctions are the most common form of punishment imposed by criminal justice systems. Most criminal sentences in the United States include financial penalties, and monetary sanctions are routinely imposed for less serious, and far more common, infractions such as traffic or parking violations.
For many, paying a monetary sanction for a low-level violation is an annoyance. However, for the poor and people of color who are disproportionately likely to be subject to criminal justice system involvement, monetary sanctions can become a vehicle for expanded social inequality and increasingly severe criminal justice contact. Failure to pay legal financial obligations often results in court summons or license suspensions that may have attendant additional costs and may trigger incarceration. In the United States, the criminal justice system is heavily and routinely involved in the lives of low-income people of color. These already-existing biases, coupled with the deep poverty that is common in many communities, join to widen the net of criminal justice involvement by escalating low-level infractions to far more serious offenses when people are unable to pay. Despite the routine justification of monetary sanctions as less-severe penalties, if imposed without restriction on the poor, they are likely to magnify the inequality producing effects of criminal justice system involvement.
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