Cash register justice. It’s a somewhat vague term for the widespread practice of local governments turning their poorest constituents into cash cows by imposing burdensome court fees and fines.
Even as it has helped many counties and municipalities deal with their underfunded budgets, the revenue earned from this practice has become a pipeline to cyclical poverty and mass incarceration, a conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice was told Thursday.
“It’s a two-tier system of justice,” said Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, who is one of the leading researchers in a field that has received little public attention until recently.
Harris, author of A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as a Punishment for the Poor, argues low-income Americans are the primary victims of a system that penalizes individuals with escalating penalties that can turn into exorbitant debts or jail terms for minor offenses like a traffic violation.
She was one of a group of researchers, advocates and justice practitioners who met with journalists to launch a two-year program aimed at increasing public awareness of the problem. The conference was organized by John Jay’s Center on Media, Crime, and Justice (publisher of The Crime Report), with support from Arnold Ventures, formerly the Laura and Jay Arnold Foundation.
A key takeaway of the conference’s first day of discussions was the broad agreement from across the political spectrum on the need for fundamental reform of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says is increasingly a staple of municipal, county, and state-level budgeting across the country.
“In this realm, there is an amazing breadth, across the political spectrum, of consensus for reform,” said Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
Yet it was also evident that while groups of the left and rights are willing to work together, they have radically different end goals that are often understated in the public discourse on cash register justice.
Marc A. Levin, vice president of Criminal Justice Policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and an architect of Right on Crime, one of the principal conservative lobby groups for justice reform, said one of the factors that drove right-wing support on this issue was its opposition to big government intervention and “overcriminalization”—making an increasing number of activities that have little impact on public safety subject subject to criminal or civil penalties.
Revenue from fines and fees, in Levin’s view, perpetuates a system that he sees as fundamentally oppressive to individual rights.
Levin noted that was one of the factors driving conservative support for Timbs v. Indiana, a Supreme Court case decided last month, in which defendant Tyson Timbs argued successfully that the government’s seizure of his $42,000 Land Rover after he was convicted in a minor drug case violated his Constitutional guarantees.
The unanimous ruling in Timbs’ favor was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who said the Eighth Amendment ban against “excessive fines,” was applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.
“The protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history,” Ginsberg wrote. “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”
Levin noted wryly that “it’s not every day that conservatives are celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
But the ruling is now celebrated by reform advocates on all sides of the partisan divide as a landmark step in the movement to reverse the practice.
Some state legislatures have also begun to take action, panelists noted. For example, in 2017, the Louisiana state legislature voted to curb excessive fines and fees.
“One problem is the perverse incentives that are built into the system because so many of the actors are reliant on fines and fees for revenue,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which established last year a “clearinghouse” for data about how the practice is being implemented across the country.
“This is happening at the same time as we have an aversion in this country to tax increases, which of course would be the equitable way of funding government, where everyone pays their fair share.
Weiss noted that the data collected so far from researchers shows that an average city earns 1.4 percent of its revenue from court-imposed costs —while at the same time for every one percent increase in revenue from the system, there is an associated 3.7 percent decrease in the violent crime clearance rate.
“That makes perfect sense,” she said. “If you’re using law enforcement to raise revenue, you’re not going to protect public safety.”
Roman Gressier is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.