(Reuters) - A growing body of research has revealed the predatory nature of municipal fines and fees in towns across the country since the U.S. Justice Department concluded in 2015 that Ferguson, Missouri, was using its police department largely as a collection agency for the city.
Similar practices recently came to light in small-town Brookside, Alabama, after news reports laid out a municipal scheme involving the police chief and court system to arrest people, often for no reason, and apparently in order to generate revenue from fines and fees. Much of the criticism of “taxation by citation” practices has focused on the injustice of government officials knowingly extracting money and resources from people by unfairly thrusting them into the criminal justice system.
Now, the results of a new, first-of-its-kind study show that the policies don’t accomplish their stated goals even if fairly applied, and that, more often, court fees simply "create a pure criminalization of poverty," according to researchers.
The study was published Feb. 20 in the American Sociological Review, a peer-reviewed journal. Authors include Devah Pager, a Harvard University sociologist who died in 2018 and was best known for her work demonstrating race discrimination in hiring; Rebecca Goldstein, a law professor at the University of California-Berkeley; and Bruce Western, sociology professor and director of the Justice Lab at Columbia University. In a randomized experiment, researchers selected more than 600 people who were convicted of criminal misdemeanors in Oklahoma County. Researchers paid off all current and prior court fees for half of the group. Misdemeanors can include low-level offenses like drug possession, trespass and disorderly conduct.
In Oklahoma County, a misdemeanor conviction “generates over a thousand dollars in court-related fees,” according to the study. That figure includes fees unrelated to one’s case – like having to pay a victim compensation fund fee if convicted for drug possession, for example.
All the study participants were represented by the Oklahoma County Public Defender’s Office.
Oklahoma County chief public defender Robert Ravitz told me he has voiced opposition to the amount of fines and fees in the county for years. Oklahoma County courts are better on the issue than many others in the state because they don't jail people for non-payment, and because Oklahomans in other jurisdictions have to pay for time spent in jail awaiting trial, Ravitz added.
The idea behind the experiment was to test some of the rationales behind the fees – whether they enforce accountability, deter future unlawful behavior, and efficiently shift costs from taxpayers to defendants and “users” of the criminal justice system.
Researchers found that people whose fines and fees were paid off were no more likely to face new criminal justice contact -- such as being charged, booked into jail or convicted -- after a year compared with those whose debt wasn’t relieved.
On the other hand, they were significantly less likely to face new court actions, such as having a warrant issued and being assessed additional debt or referred to private debt collectors. And, despite significant collection efforts, less than 5% of outstanding debt was paid back to the court by those who didn’t have their debt relieved.