Russell Sage Publishes First Book on Court Fines and Fees Exposes Lifetime of Debt Faced by Poor Americans

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Russell Sage Publishes First Book on Court Fines and Fees Exposes Lifetime of Debt Faced by Poor Americans

New York, NY – New research on court fines and fees in A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions As Punishment for the Poor, published today by the Russell Sage Foundation, examines the lifetime effects of court-imposed debt against Americans convicted of felonies. In contrast to the Department of Justice report on municipal practices in Ferguson, MO, this book focuses on the much-less covered world of felony fines and fees, which are sentenced on top of prison time.

Drawing on original research from Washington State, University of Washington sociologist Alexes Harris—who is one of the nation’s leading experts on fines and fees and has advised the Department of Justice—shows how a prison sentence is only the beginning of our criminal justice system’s punishment for convicted felons, who often face a lifetime of debt they can never pay off. She also provides inside accounts of how judges often apply arbitrary and inconsistent notions of “personal responsibility” in levying fines and fees against people who could not possibly afford them, including the homeless.

Key findings from the book include:

  • How non-elected court bureaucrats use cultural ideas of personal responsibility, meritocracy, and paternalism to levy fines & fees, demand debt payment, and jail non-payers: Asked how a homeless defendant could possibly find the means for court-ordered debt payment, one prosecutor said in an interview for the book “…there’s good money to be made in standing along the street corner and asking.”
  • How fines & fees trap the poor in “permanent punishment”: Even though felony defendants interviewed in the book carry an average of $9,204 of fines and fees debt, they can only afford to pay $31.25/month. That means that after five years of regular payments, their total debt will grow by nearly $1,500, despite consistent payment. Washington State charges a 12% interest rate on fines and fees debt, even while defendants are incarcerated.
  • How fines & fees disproportionately target the poor and people of color, deepening disparities within the criminal justice system and building on previous systems of social control, such as debtors’ prisons and Jim Crow-era “Black Codes.”
  • Why judges are part of the problem: Even though many fines and fees are purely discretionary and can be waived for those who cannot afford them, judges often choose to levy them against people who cannot possibly afford them—including the unemployed and homeless. One judge said that he wouldn’t follow monetary sentencing guidelines, even if they existed.
  • What policy reforms can help, including: barring fines and fees for those without the means to pay; establishing clear criteria in state law that defines who is able to pay; and requiring judges to follow these guidelines in sentencing hearings.

The book contains a wealth of original research—including sentencing data, legal documents, observations of court hearings, and interviews with felony defendants and over 100 state and court officials from clerks to judges to attorneys in Washington State.


Alexes Harris is an Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She has presented her research at the White House, and serves on the Science Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Justice. Her research interests focus on social stratification processes and racial and ethnic disparities.  She investigates how contact with varying institutions (educational, juvenile and criminal justice and economic) impact individuals' life chances. Frequently, her work combines data types in order to illustrate both the macro context of the problem at hand, and at the same time investigate the micro processes leading to outcomes.  Using participant observation, interview, and statistical methods her work has investigated how institutional actors assess, label, and process individuals and groups, and how those processed respond.  Her aim is to produce research that is theoretically informed and empirically rich, and research that is of value in local, state, and national policy arenas.


The Russell Sage Foundation is the principal American foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. The Foundation is dedicated to strengthening the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences as a means of improving social policies. The Foundation is a research center for a select group of Visiting Scholars each year, a funding source for studies by scholars at other academic and research institutions, and an active member of the nation's social science community. The Foundation also publishes, under its own imprint, the books that derive from the work of its grantees and Visiting Scholars.

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