Our Double Pandemic Does Not Need More Fines and Fees | Opinion

I recently had an emotional conversation with a retired police officer of 30 years about criminal legal fines and fees. He said he never realized how the system of monetary sanctions—the fines, fees, restitution, costs and surcharges (plus interest, financing charges and collection fees)—devastated people's lives. That he had regularly stopped, detained and arrested people because of nonpayment-related warrants, arrested them for invalid driver's licenses and just assumed they were "deadbeats." He came to understand that they were stuck within the criminal legal system largely because of their poverty.

In the United States over the past 25 years, local and state jurisdictions have increased the amounts of fines and fees for citations and convictions. As a sociologist, for the past 13 years I have researched monetary sanctions across the United States. My work argues that this national trend of relying on fines and fees to fund justice arose in response to the rising costs associated with mass conviction and incarceration. Research has shown that nationally, monetary sanctions disproportionately affect people who are poor, allow police to overly patrol and arrest and cite Black people, lead to employment disruptions, strain family and friendship networks and lead to distrust, resentment and ultimately undermine the authority of police and the criminal legal system. Just this past week, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that in Florida, until people pay off all of their debts, they cannot vote. These practices seeking to generate revenue for local government coffers have been found to be predatory in nature.

Amid our double pandemic of state-sponsored violence and COVID-19, local and state governments are intensifying their systems of fines and fees in order to generate even more revenue. In the name of public safety, state and local authorities across the country are announcing strict policies, with citations ranging from $100 to $1,000 and potentially 90 days in jail for people who are in public without face masks. Furthermore, some jurisdictions have announced increases in traffic and parking fees to help cover the loss in revenue due to the pandemic and, ironically, backfill the purposefully "defunded" police budgets via these citations.

Research has shown that in a similar moment, the 2008 recession, municipalities increased amounts of monetary sanctions imposed, but courts were not able to generate additional revenue—in other words, they were unable to draw more blood from the proverbial stone. Yet, the debt, the court-imposed fines and fees remain hanging over people's heads, in some cities with interest. This means people's credit scores are negatively affected, they struggle to afford minimum payments, and they face warrants for nonpayment-related reasons, loss of driver's licenses and incarceration. This is the system of monetary sanctions in America. This is part and parcel of the contemporary criminal legal system.

In the middle of a pandemic, when people who have already been living precarious financial lives, experiencing housing instability and food insecurity, why would it make sense to expand and amp up this system of monetary sanctions? At this moment, when we are calling for the dismantling and restructuring of the criminal legal system, why would we not remove the layer of fiscal pressure of monetary sanctions—one shown to be destructive to individuals, their families and communities?

COVID-19 Mask
A mask sits on the field during Summer Workouts at Minute Maid Park on July 12 in Houston, Texas. Bob Levey/Getty

In its place, state and local policy should focus on public health and harm reduction. Instead of citing people for not wearing masks, hand them a mask. Instead of increasing ticket citations, eliminate the court-imposed debt people are burdened with, thereby decreasing the vast expense police, courts and jails shoulder with the monitoring and punishment of nonpayment. Decrease the massive imprint of the criminal legal system with revisiting three-strike laws, mandatory minimums and sentence enhancements, which grew the legal system into the beast it is today. Consider taxes such as the Seattle City Council just passed for large corporations to reinvest their profits into local communities. Legalize cannabis, as 11 states have already done. One state alone generated $395 million in taxes in 2019, while at the same time reducing the numbers of people brought into the criminal legal system.

This is what dismantling and reorienting the criminal legal system looks like. This is what taking accountability for every one of our roles in this system looks like. As the police officer I talked with indicated, we are all complicit in this system of marginalization and criminalization. Let us slow down, think about what we can and should expect of our citizens—especially in this moment—and create ways to ensure both our physical and financial health. We are all complicit in this system until we dismantle it and address the harm it causes.

Alexes Harris, Ph.D., is the presidential term professor and professor of sociology at the University of Washington, as well as the author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.