2: Monetary sanctions in the age of mass incarceration: addressing the harms of mass criminal legal debt

Monetary sanctions (legal financial obligations, or LFOs) are the fines, fees, surcharges, interest, and restitution im-posed by the legal system on people who are issued cita-tions or make contact with criminal courts. The use of monetary sanctions has escalated dramatically over the decades and remains the most common form of punish-ment across the United States. This increase has raised im-portant questions about the relationship between financial penalties and the system of mass incarceration. Mass in-carceration has put tremendous fiscal pressure on govern-ments as they deal with ballooning criminal legal expendi-tures. Many governments have turned to monetary sanc-tions to absorb some of this cost, particularly in smaller ju-risdictions. These efforts involve increasing fines and fees for lower-level offenses and the increased use of LFOs in conjunction with other punishments such as incarceration. Thus, in addition to mass incarceration, we are also experi-encing an era of mass criminal legal debt. As reformists continue to push for alternatives to incarceration, it is vital to understand how these alternatives impact the predomi-nantly poor communities of color, especially those overrepresented among the justice-involved population. Individuals are often mandated to pay fees for their proba-tion, electronic home monitoring, and various rehabilitative services and treatment programs. This practice tends to widen the scope of individuals saddled with legal debt or extra-legal expenses for court-ordered treatment. At the same time, it creates what Pattillo and Kirk call “layaway freedom,” in which freedom from the criminal legal system (CLS) becomes contingent on an individual’s ability to pay.

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Beyond Bars
A Path Forward from 50 Years of Mass Incarceration in the United States