A Fine Scheme: How Municipal Fines Become Crushing Debt in the Shadow of the New Debtors’ Prisons
50 Pages Posted: 24 Apr 2015 Last revised: 2 Jul 2016
Date Written: April 23, 2015
As state and local budgets tighten, municipalities have turned to civil fines and penalties to fill empty coffers. These fines and fees, often termed legal financial obligations or economic sanctions, arose as a way to shift the costs of criminal adjudication to those charged with criminal activity. But many jurisdictions are now using jail time to coerce poor, mostly minority violators of minor infractions, such as truancy fees, driving offenses, littering, and jaywalking, into paying fees they cannot afford. These fines are only the beginning, as municipalities tack on court fees, payment plan charges, other costs, and interest. Small debts spiral into enormous ones, and nonpayment can result in incarceration. Collection of these debts is often outsourced to private debt collectors, who use aggressive tactics and charge collection fees, creating a never-ending cycle of debt and incarceration. This cycle is not only devastating to the poor and poor communities, but it makes no sense, because people wind up jailed at costs far exceeding their original fines. The result is that the rich may walk away, while the poor must pay or stay.
This Note explores the origins of and shift to this system of municipal fines; how the current scheme operates outside the bounds of the Constitution; its disastrous effects on poor communities, particularly communities of color; and several alternatives and avenues for legal reform.
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