U of M research team tracks complex web of monetary sanctions in Minnesota

April 20, 2017
Statue

When criminal justice is implemented across Minnesota, the effects of financial penalties associated with the courts and sentencing, can create a cycle of disadvantage for defendants, according to a research team at the University of Minnesota. Their work on this complex and decentralized web of policies and regulations is outlined in a report released today, titled “Monetary Sanctions in the Criminal Justice System.”

Christopher Uggen, Regents Professor and Martindale Chair in Sociology and Law at the U of M, leads a team of Minnesota researchers who join colleagues at eight universities across the country to explore the role of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system in their home states. The research teams have completed the first phase of their work, which is funded by a five-year grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The comprehensive review of financial punishments, law, and policy includes nine states: California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Washington. Professor Uggen is joined by PhD candidates in sociology Robert Stewart and Veronica Horowitz, as well as undergraduate student Chelsea Carlson at the University of Minnesota.

Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, leads the national study. In general, the researchers found wide variation on the fee amount, the circumstances in which they’re imposed and even when courts allow people to pay their fees. But all nine states impose monetary sanctions on a routine basis. In some states, the fines are specific: For example, Washington, North Carolina and Georgia have detailed lists of mandatory fees for each offense. Other states, like Texas and Minnesota, specify only maximum fines for certain crimes.

 “Our research in Minnesota showed remarkable variation and complexity across the state in the financial obligations that criminal defendants face,” said Professor Uggen. “Monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system create a broad range of stakeholders, which varies from county to county in Minnesota.”

Monetary sanctions include fines, court and correctional fees, restitution, surcharges and even collection fees on unpaid sanctions. They can be imposed for offenses ranging from traffic violations to misdemeanors to felony convictions. Though these types of financial punishments have a long history in the United States, state and local governments across the nation have been imposing monetary sanctions with increasing frequency over the past 30 years. The result is a national patchwork of financial punishments.

In Minnesota’s decentralized criminal justice system, it can be difficult for clients to keep track of and make payments on the money they owe. Costs such as interest charges on restitution and court- imposed correctional programs and services can perpetuate a cycle of disadvantage and may even lead to repeat offenses. Minnesota courts do not use private collections agencies, instead withholding state tax refunds to pay outstanding debt. Since people who owe such debt tend to be poor, the consequences of debt and the associated damage to their credit rating can be far-reaching.

“A complex collection of laws and practices that varies across the state creates a cycle of disadvantage, particularly for repeat offenders,” said Professor Uggen. “Minnesota’s policies can also compromise rehabilitation. For example, non-payment of a legal fine can lead to suspension of a driver’s license, which can limit many facets of a person’s life, including their ability to get a job. The implications can be even greater in Greater Minnesota, where access to public transportation is limited.”

“Additionally, Minnesota differs from other states in the study in our reliance on probation and community service,” said Professor Uggen. “The additional costs and fees associated with probation also vary across Minnesota counties,  including supervision fees, payment for electronic home monetary devices, and the like.”

Professor Uggen and his colleagues across the nation are currently building on this initial review by conducting analyses in eight states of fines and fees from state court data, observing court proceedings and interviewing court officers and debtors throughout the state.

The national research team endeavors will help resolve the details of monetary sanctions and how they differ among and within states, they will also examine, among other questions, the underlying question of why monetary sanctions have become such a prominent part of the modern criminal justice system nationally.

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