Predatory use of criminal justice

June 1, 2017
Gavel.

It can start with a simple parking ticket. A person doesn’t have the money to pay the fine and is ordered to appear in court. Then they miss a court appearance and are locked up and forced to pay a fee for the jail stay. Soon they’ve racked up hundreds of dollars in fines and fees, and the cycle continues.

Criminal justice practices such as these are in wide use in cities across the country and disproportionately affect lower-income residents and people of color, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

Joe Soss, Cowles Professor for the Study of Public Service at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has partnered with Joshua Page, associate professor of sociology, to explore the “financialization” of the criminal justice system as a predatory system of governance.

Predatory use of the criminal justice system is not unusual, Soss says. It can be seen in practices such as prison profiteering, the bail industry, and civil asset forfeiture. But predatory practices expanded dramatically during the Great Recession that began in 2007, when tax collections dropped due to the weak economy and municipalities needed to find more sources of revenue to pay for ongoing operations.

He notes that predatory governance provides a critical backdrop for understanding the Black Lives Matter movement, which sprung up in protest over a string of police shootings of black men.

“By putting people into perpetual debt, we’ve taken away any chance they have for social mobility. It affects people’s ability to live with dignity and security,” Soss says. “And that has an impact on police-community relations and police killings. When you are constantly pulling people over for financial reasons, you’re increasing the chances that something will go bad.”

The research of Soss and Page will provide some critical analysis of predatory governance that’s been lacking. “These predatory practices are certainly well known in the communities they target,” Soss says. “They are worthy of far more critical analysis than they have received.”