On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed research about the role fines, court fees, surcharges and more play in the criminal justice system. The issue gained prominence in the St. Louis area after Michael Brown’s shooting death in 2014.
In addition, a report released a few years ago by ArchCity Defenders, a public defender group that mainly assists poor people in the St. Louis area, showed that in 2013, the municipal court in Ferguson – a city of 21,135 people – issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses.
Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is one of the researchers on a multi-state project examining fines and fees in nine states, including Missouri. She just completed year one of the five-year project.
“There was a lot of research about fines and fees in Ferguson right after it happened, which I think is excellent,” said Huebner. “But we received funding from the Arnold Foundation to expand this study and all studies to nine different states. We knew it was happening in Missouri but we didn’t know how it compared. We wanted to know if laws were similar or if there were best practices to learn from other states.”
Fines and fees in Washington, Minnesota, Georgia, New York, Texas, California, Illinois and North Carolina are being studied alongside Missouri. Huebner said this is important because “we know a lot about Ferguson, but we don’t know much about the rest of the state.”
As far as the amount of fines and fees imposed, Huebner said, Missouri falls somewhere in the middle. Minnesota, which has low incarceration rates keeps its fines low (an example of best practices, Huebner said.). California is on the other end of the spectrum, with high rates of incarceration and some of the highest fines in the nation.
She’s specifically researched areas like Cape Girardeau and Sedalia.
“We’ve found that fines and fees are routinely imposed all over the state,” Huebner said.
The study is being executed in three stages. First, the research team did a legal review of federal codes and all the ways people can be fined. Second, the team will conduct client interviews all over the states included in the study, trying to determine what the needs are in terms of reform. Third, the study will look at official data and determine where fines and fees come from as well as who gets the proceeds from them.
“It is important to understand these fines are layered upon other sanctions communities already have,” Huebner said. “Transportation, healthcare, consumer debt. The depth of poverty and debt in the state of Missouri is striking. There is also a lack of information about how to pay fines and fees — that’s one of the issues that has come to light.”
An alternative Huebner has looked at is the idea of “day fines,” which are instituted across Europe, which makes fines and fees on a sliding scale according to a person’s ability to pay (income).
“The goal is not to punish people any further if they aren’t able to pay,” Huebner said. “We could average the fines or reduce them for everyone. That’s part of the discussion: is it fair to citizens to waive some citizens’ fines and not others?”
Huebner said that many behaviors have been criminalized in recent years that didn’t used to be and broadening the criminal justice system has negative effects, such as more jail time and less rehabilitation.
“Your listeners would be less impressed with how much people owe, sometimes $5000 here and there,” Huebner said. “It is layering: people owe credit card, housing, they’ve been evicted. I can’t tell a really extravagant story, because most of this is regular people trying to live their lives, struggling with this debt.”
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