Shackled to Debt: Criminal Justice Financial Obligations and the Barriers to Re-entry They Create

New Thinking in Community Corrections

January 13, 2017
Authors: Karin D. Martin, Sandra Susan Smith, and Wendy Still

The Executive Session on Community Corrections released the fourth paper in the New Thinking in Community Corrections series, entitled Shackled to Debt: Criminal Justice Financial Obligations and the Barriers to Re-entry They Create.

  • "Between bad credit ratings, loss of voting rights, wage garnishment and a whole host of other sanctions, the ripple effect of being unable to pay off criminal fines and fees can last decades. This only serves to reinforce and deepen the marginalization and isolation that the justice-involved face from mainstream social, economic, and political institutions." - Sandra Susan Smith, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of California, Berkeley

In this new report co-authored by Karin D. Martin, Sandra Susan Smith, and Wendy Still, the authors discuss the long-term and unintended consequences of criminal justice financial obligations (CJFOs): fines, forfeiture of property, court fees, supervision fees, and restitution.

The authors find that CJFOs are imposed at multiple stages of justice involvement, generating complexities that are difficult to navigate for both individuals and system actors alike. Additionally, financial sanctions are usually imposed without regard for individuals’ ability to pay, and yet failure to pay can trigger additional monetary and criminal sanctions. This means that relatively minor initial infractions can result in large debt accrual and escalating involvement in criminal justice systems.

Current systems of criminal justice financial obligations can also generate perverse incentives for justice-involved individuals - who may forego pursuing long-term sustainability in favor of being able to pay off their criminal justice debt quickly – and for system actors. Probation and parole officers, for example, may find that their ability to foster trust and positive behavior change in the lives of those they supervise is compromised by the role of debt collector.

Consequences of criminal justice debt can undermine post-incarceration re-entry goals such as finding stable housing, transportation and employment. Failure to achieve these goals is costly not only for justice-involved individuals, but also in terms of public safety outcomes.

  • "The authors make a strong case for disentangling debt collection from the role of probation officers. By limiting or eliminating fines and fees, probation staff can prioritize public safety and people under supervision can focus on their rehabilitation, which ultimately serves public safety." - Vincent Schiraldi, PCJ Senior Research Fellow and former New York City Probation Commissioner

To address the complexity, perverse incentives, and individual and social costs of CJFOs, the report presents recommendations in seven areas: (1) Factor in ability to pay when assessing CJFOs; (2) Eliminate “poverty penalties” (e.g. interest, application fees for payment plans, late fees, incarceration for failure to meet payments); (3) Implement alternatives to monetary sanctions where appropriate (i.e. community service); (4) Provide amnesty for people currently in debt due to CJFOs; (5) Deposit any CJFOs that are collected into a trust fund for the express purpose of rehabilitation for people under supervision; (6) Establish an independent commission in each jurisdiction to evaluate the consequences of CJFOs; and (7) Relieve probation, parole, and police officers of the responsibility of collecting debt.

Praise for Shackled to Debt:

  • "Ferguson, MO and the surrounding communities serve as one of the most explicit examples of what this report shows: government agencies colluding to simultaneously exert social control to raise revenue on the backs of the poor and communities of color through fines and fees. This illegal, unethical, immoral practice cannot continue if we ever want to have something worth calling a justice system, and the authors outline a commonsense approach to combating these practices." - Thomas Harvey, Co-Founder and Executive Director, ArchCity Defenders
  • “As a young man, I spent the first decade of my adulthood reeling in an unstoppable cycle from jail to court to satisfy the insatiable fines, fees and debt associated with the choices I had made. As a nation that values freedom and opportunity, we must learn from my story, and the millions like it, that this cycle of poverty, crime and debt set our neighbors up for failure and increased reliance on the overburdened criminal justice system. This paper helps to clearly define these issues and presents a clear path for the reform of this devastating segment of the criminal justice system.” -Jason Cleaveland, founder and CEO, Obodo
  • "As a prosecutor, very early on I saw the futility in saddling someone with another high stakes financial obligation after they had just been convicted a felon. In fact, it seemed counterproductive and incentivized illegal means of obtaining money so as to avoid probation violations and to pay the bills."- Adam Foss, Co-Founder and President, Prosecutor Integrity
  • "Overburdening supervised individuals with fees and fines that they have no chance of repaying backs them into a corner, and pushes the criminal justice system closer to failure instead of success. Probation officers need to first be public safety agents, not revenue collectors." - Doug Burris, Chief Probation Officer, United States District Court, The Eastern District of Missouri, Probation
  • "Recently, criminal justice debt has been brought into the public’s consciousness as a major barrier to successful re-entry. This report helps policy makers understand what’s at stake when we monetize misery and relegate millions of Americans to an underclass of citizenship by tethering them to a debtor’s prison for years after they interact with our criminal justice system." – Glenn Martin, President and Founder, JustLeadershipUSA

Karin D. Martin is an Assistant Professor of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York; Sandra Susan Smith is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley; and Wendy Still is Chief Probation Officer of Alameda County, California.

The Executive Session on Community Corrections is a project of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ), the Malcolm Wiener Center, and the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management (PCJ) at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS).

Findings and conclusions in these publications are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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"Overburdening supervised individuals with fees and fines that they have no chance of repaying backs them into a corner, and pushes the criminal justice system closer to failure instead of success. Probation officers need to first be public safety agents, not revenue collectors." - Doug Burris, Chief Probation Officer, United States District Court, The Eastern District of Missouri, Probation

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