Bound: Monetary Sanctions as Permanent Tethers to the Criminal Justice System
My name is Marnishia Jernigan. I am a graduating fourth year senior at The Ohio State University from Detroit, Michigan. I am double majoring in Criminology and Criminal Justice Studies and Political Science. I am an intern for the Racial, Democracy, Crime and Justice Network (RDCJN). I also serve on the executive board of the OSU chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I have always had a passion-driven interest in learning about the ways that race functions in different aspects of society. Taking courses focused around crime, justice, and society as a criminology major only heightened this interest.
I discovered the internship posting at the RDCJN while sifting through my emails one afternoon. I had received yet another email from the department of sociology. At the time, I was working two jobs, maintaining a 15 credit hour course load, and working to stay involved with the NAACP, my scholars group, and a few other student organizations. I wasn’t exactly looking to take on any other commitments but out of curiosity I scrolled through the email and read the internship description. The description wasn’t what got my attention. Instead it was the name “Racial Democracy, Crime and Justice Network”. Later that day, I visited the website and read more about what the RDCJN is and what the RDCJN does. I thought that an internship with this organization would be the perfect way to explore my interests in social justice and racial equality, so I applied.
Since I began interning with the RDCJN I’ve been exposed to some incredible scholars. Many of them are conducting or have conducted research in areas that interest me or connect with my personal experiences and passions. The purpose of this column will be to explore some of the works that I have learned from or found particularly interesting. I begin with a discussion of some particularly interesting research on monetary sanctions.
My Take on Dr. Alexes Harris’ Work
In September of 2015, I was able to attend a talk given by Dr. Alexes Harris, an associate professor at the University of Washington and a current member of the RDCJN. Dr. Harris spoke about her research on monetary sanctions. By definition, monetary sanctions are penalties assigned to offenders dependent on crimes that they have committed. In practice, monetary sanctions are much more than what they appear to be on the surface. Dr. Harris explores the use of monetary sanctions as a tool of social control employed by the United States criminal justice system in her forthcoming book aptly titled A Pound of Flesh. Dr. Harris’s research uses different qualitative and quantitative research methods to examine the use of monetary sanctions in criminal cases and the implications of such use.
Monetary sanctions are sometimes seen in the form of fees tacked on to other fees for failure to pay. When nonpayment is a choice, these fees may serve as a deterrent. However, failure to pay is often not a matter of choice. When poor people cannot afford to pay costly legal fees or other fees that may be associated with their violation it could lead to additional fines or even jail time. These sanctions strengthen and prolong the ties between these offenders and the criminal justice system. Subsequently, the most serious consequences fall disproportionately on to poor people. Wealthier people can afford to pay these fines, thereby severing their ties to the criminal justice system.
The correlation between race and class ensures that the disproportionate effects on poor people translates into disproportionate effects on minorities. This, in turn, leads to an affirmation of the disproportionate effects of the criminal justice system on minorities, especially African Americans. Monetary sanctions paired with the many factors that funnel the poor and minorities into the criminal justice system. These factors work together to reproduce and reinforce racial inequalities.
Dr. Harris’s book also discusses the intent of monetary sanctions in contrast to the effects. The intent of monetary sanctions, as with most corrective sanctions imposed by the criminal justice system, is to hold offenders accountable, as well as to work as a deterrent against future offenses. In many cases, these sanctions are disproportionately punitive. Judges often have sole authority when it comes to determining whether nonpayment is willful. Willful nonpayment leads to increased fees and possible jail time. This leaves far too much room for human error. The marginalization of the poor and racial minorities that results from monetary sanctions is only a step down from mass incarceration. The social control of the criminal justice system expands its reach pass the gates of prisons and jails. It may seem minor in relation to the larger issue of mass incarceration, but the consequences are very real.