By: Katherine Donelly
A traffic ticket should not land you in prison–or in a lifetime of debt. But our current system of punishment leaves many with fines that they cannot pay. Soon these fines compound, and the prospect of paying off this debt becomes less and less realistic. Suddenly, your license is suspended. Wait long enough, and you might have a warrant out for your arrest. This standard pattern of rapidly escalating penalties raises a critical question: how can criminal fines be ethical when they effectively criminalize poverty?
Proponents of criminal fines claim that they deter defendants from committing the same crime again, and thus increase public safety. This argument has a number of key flaws. First, fines are not the most effective means of deterring offenders from committing a repeated crime; instead, punishments such as community service have been found to be not only less expensive, but also more successful in reducing recidivism. Furthermore, the enforcement of fines is incredibly financially inefficient. If law enforcement officials are allocating time and resources to collect fines for petty crimes, they are less available as respondents in more serious situations, such as 911 calls. Criminal fines are thus a waste of public safety officials’ and the courts’ time, as the resources allocated towards collection hardly outweigh those gained in the process. Much of the time, these fines are never even collected – billions of dollars from fines remain unpaid. Simply put, criminal fines are inefficient and insufficient as a means of funding our courts and our criminal justice initiatives. Instead of prioritizing rehabilitation efforts, we have created a system in which the poor are punished for their poverty, and our public safety needs are left unmet.
Poor people are already at greater risk to interact with the criminal justice system. According to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to producing research to promote sentencing policy reform and address racial disparities in incarceration, sixty percent of those imprisoned in the United States are low income, many of whom were arrested due to a failure to pay debts or fines for minor infractions. Arresting someone for their inability to afford to pay their fine, and then releasing them with excess fines as a punishment, perpetuates a vicious cycle that is both cruel and unproductive, and functions as a regressive tax on the poor. Thus, we have a system in which for some, breaking a law costs no more than a night out to dinner, while for others, it can bring financial ruin.
Ferguson, Missouri serves as an alarming case study of the ways in which the court system uses fines to prey on low-income, and often Black, citizens. In 2013, the United States Department of Justice’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department found that the court issued over 9,000 arrest warrants on cases of which the majority stemmed from minor infractions, such as parking tickets or traffic violations. If a defendant failed to appear in court, even for a minor infraction (e.g.a traffic violation), they were subject to compounding fines, further exacerbating their situation. In one striking example, an African-American woman in Ferguson received a ticket for parking her car illegally. Because she could not afford the fine, this harmless infraction wrought disaster: two arrests, six days in jail, and $550 in court payments. Over seven years later, the woman is still making regular payments on the fine, and despite already having paid $550, she still owes $541.
For a nation that prides itself on equality and justice for all Americans, our criminal justice system falls far short. The United States, often referred to as the “leader of the free world,” leads the world in incarceration rates. And while crime rates drop, this number continues to grow. Our criminal legal system serves as a microcosm for many of the structural injustices that define American life–racism, classism, poverty, over-policing, and underfunding of critical public services–and utterly fails to deliver on its promise of actually protecting the public. The truth becomes staggeringly clear: our justice system is preying on the same low-income, minority Americans who have been exploited and oppressed since colonization. It is past time that we eliminate fines as punishment, and fix a system that is so deeply unjust.
Photo of a courtroom in Pennsylvania by Carol Highsmith on picryl.com
Katherine is a third-year student at the University of Michigan, pursuing her B.A. in Spanish, Political Science, and English. She is especially passionate about political advocacy and decarceration. After graduating in the spring of 2022, she hopes to pursue further schooling to obtain an MSW and a JD.