Do the Crime, Do the Time—and Then Pay the Price

A new book chronicles the system of fines and fees that traps felony defendants long after they’ve left prison.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jun 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Returning to society after incarceration is tough for many reasons—housing, employment, and access to public benefits that help people rebuild their lives can all be hard to come by. For felony defendants, fees and fines that linger after release can be added to that list, according to a new book by University of Washington sociologist Alexes Harris. In A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, Harris chronicles how court-imposed fees can permanently ensnare indigent people long after they’ve served their time—while those with means escape this perpetual punishment.

Each felony conviction in Washington state is accompanied by an average of $1,300 in financial sanctions. The costs are attributed to victims’ restitution, to recouping criminal justice system costs, and to enhanced punishment. Harris studied five counties over eight years, finding that in some jurisdictions, that average shoots up to $9,204. For those who can’t afford their payments, the number grows as interest is charged on court-imposed debt. Unpaid fees can also lead to arrest warrants, landing people unable to pay their debts back behind bars.

It’s not just a problem in Washington. After reviewing statutes across the country, Harris’ team discovered that every state allows courts to fine defendants in addition to their incarceration. TakePart spoke with Harris about her findings. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

TakePart: As we’ve learned over the last few years, court fines and fees affect all kinds of defendants—including low-level offenders in municipal courts like that in Ferguson, Missouri. How did you decide to focus on felony convictions?

Alexes Harris: The felony court was very interesting because yes, people who commit serious crimes need to be punished—but how much? For the rest of their lives? If we really have this American rhetoric about “Do the crime, do the time, and you’ll be redeemed”—that’s not what’s happening. We need to figure out a way to punish people and then help them move forward.

TakePart: If poor felony defendants can’t afford to pay these fees, why do judges assign them?

Harris: I found that there’s this notion of a new or additional punishment being added to a sentence to try and hold certain people even more accountable for their offending. I’ve seen a prosecutor proudly tell a homeless person to go stand by the road with a cardboard sign to raise money [to pay these fees]. In Washington state, we don’t have a state income tax. We rely on sales tax. Court officials believe that the reliance on monetary sanctions is a necessary source of revenue.

TakePart: But if defendants are too poor to pay, how is this system profitable to the state?

Harris: They’re raising money from a lot of people who make very small payments. In 2012, the state generated $29 million from these payments from half a million people. The average yearly payment made by a felony defendant is just $112. They charge 12 percent interest on unpaid fines and an additional $100 annually per open account.

TakePart: What were the challenges of studying this part of the criminal justice system?

Harris: When I started, there were no other criminologists or sociologists doing research in this area on the increased reliance on fees in the past 15 to 20 years. There were norms in each courthouse that you can’t pick up just by reviewing data—you have to physically go and sit in the court and see what judges are doing. State statutes are so ambiguous that you have to go in on the ground level.

TakePart: Where will your research take you next?

Harris: The court clerks I talked to all said they needed this source of income but couldn’t tell me where it was going. I have a new project where I’m trying to figure out where all of this money goes—how much is generated and recovered and what percentage goes where.

TakePart: What questions were you left with after writing this book?

Harris: We are here because of the 40-year movement toward mass conviction and incarceration. We can’t afford where we’re going anymore, so we’re charging defendants. But even for people who do really bad things, when is enough enough? Do bad people not get to live their lives post-incarceration? We have this momentum for criminal justice reform, but we need to talk about what we expect in terms of punishment. Is leaving someone with lifelong debt giving us some sense of proportionality? I don’t think we’ve faced these questions yet, and we can’t really make reform happen until we do.