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Alexes Harris: Op-ed: Justice shouldn’t come with a $250 fine


I agree with prior comments favoring a wealth-based system for assessing fines and fees over an income-based system (although perhaps administrability concerns could arise). There are plenty of very wealthy people with relatively low incomes who, as long as we're assessing fines and fees, should not be prominent beneficiaries of reform efforts. If feasible, creating a wealth-based system seems to cut more cleanly at the injustice being targeted.

It seems to me that at the amount of money the fine would need to be to actually be a deterrence for crime, it feels very much so an unfair punishment. Why should we punish people who speed with a fear of if they'll be able to pay rent or afford food for the week? And if we are going to lower it, I don't see people living in poverty having any amount of money taken from their paychecks that isn't a threat to their safety. I'd feel more prone to abolishing fines and fees as criminal punishment, but I am excited to hear this topic spoken about further at the panel. 

ronicahutchison has reacted to this post.

I would echo some of the concerns raised in previous comments. At best, fining people who cannot afford to pay seems like an incredibly backwards way of encouraging rehabilitation and preventing recidivism and at worst seems to create de facto debtor's prisons (which I believe are unconstitutional).  I think I'd be in favor of eliminating fines altogether, especially for things like marijuana possession or traffic violations which don't really seem to harm people.

I'd just add that, in addition to the harms that this kind of system inflicts on those who are subjected to un-payable fines, it seems to create really perverse incentives for cops and other local actors to attempt to fund municipal services through over-policing and criminalization. If municipal programs are things "from which we all benefit" as the article says, the cost of them should be shared in an equitable way. The fact that we choose to fund them in such a harmful way says a lot about the kind of society we live in. As abolition gets raised more and more forcefully, I think this article raised some important considerations for me about the work that needs to be done in convincing people of the importance of non-carceral, rehabilitative programs so that we don't need to rely on these kind of counterproductive fines and fees in order to fund them. 

I would like to echo the many previous posts emphasizing the disparate impact fines have on people caught up in the justice system. In thinking about this problem, I return in particular to how this disparate impact is amplified by the ever-growing problem of income inequality in America. Fines and fees leveraged against poor defendants exacerbate this problem despite their well-meaning origin. We can only protect lower-income people to the extent we acknowledge the fundamental ways in which our economic system is failing huge swaths of our country. 

There are a few things I've learned in the past two days that might be relevant to the discussions here. First is the lack of date on who pays how much for what crime. One of the panelists mentioned how there isn't a data warehouse that would support the kind of system that Katarina proposed, and I think that is something that is entirely fixable and that researchers, lawyers, government officials should really focus their attention on. Second, fines and fees were imposed originally as a revenue generating device, but the irony here is that they are imposed disproportionately on those who are least likely to pay up. Maybe one of the starting points of reforming the current system is to change the incentive structure and stop viewing fines and fees as a large source of revenue. Finally, and relatedly, one of the panelists on Tuesday made a point about how people seemed to be taking fines and fees for granted. That is something that this op-ed also hints at when it argues that these prosecutors should go further in order to effect real change to the system. Again, this requires change in perception, which is going to be a long-term project, but the sooner we have these conversations, the more likely real change will come to pass. 

This op-ed succinctly summarizes the inequitable impact of "progressive" criminal justice efforts along class and race lines that mirrors the inequitable impact of traditional punitive measures. While working as a student in one of the clinics at Michigan Law last semester, I counseled a client who stated she would rather serve jail time for her offense than probation, because she couldn't afford the steep fine associated with probation. Thinking about such cases in juxtaposition with the bloated police/criminal justice budgets throughout the country brought to light by protestors this summer prompts the question of why so much income is needed through these fines in the first place.