A Pound of Flesh

Harris, Alexes.  (2016).  A Pound of Flesh:  Monetary Sanctions as a Permanent Punishment for the Poor. New York: Russell Sage.  (American Sociological Association’s Rose Monograph Series).

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The last 13 years I have researched the issue of monetary sanctions – the fines, fees, costs, restitution and surcharges people are given by local and state courts via citations or convictions.I have had the opportunity to share my research on many stages from the White House at a Department of Justice and White House convening in December 2015….

Alexes Harris in December 2015 speaking at the White House on a panel about monetary sanctions.

I’ve also shared my research at a number of universities across the county.

Book Summary

A Pound of Flesh documents the contemporary relationship between the United States’ systems of social control and inequality.  Specifically, the book examines the expansion of and use of monetary sanctions as a criminal sentencing tool.  Monetary sanctions are a type of criminal sentence imposed by state superior courts nationally, and include fines, fees, costs, interest, surcharges, and restitution.  Until these debts are paid in full individuals remain under judicial supervision, subject to court summons, warrants, and jail stays.  As a result of interest and surcharges that accumulate on unpaid financial penalties, for many offenders, this portion of their sentences become permanent legal debt (punishment) that they carry for the remainder of their lives. Given that the vast majority of people who receive felony convictions in the U.S. are disproportionately of color and poor, with minimal employment and income prospects post-conviction, the practice of imposing financial penalties cements people to lives of poverty and reinforces existing inequalities. Legal debt matters because of the large number of people it affects, and for the pernicious impacts it has on their lives.

This book interrogates the relationship between the U.S. criminal justice system and inequality by answering the following questions:  What are monetary sanctions and how do they vary nationally?   Why are they implemented, what is the legal intent?  How might this sentencing practice vary by jurisdiction and why?  What are the consequences of monetary sanctions to individuals convicted of crimes?  To address these questions, I rely on observational data of criminal sentencing and violation hearings, interviews with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, state legislators and defendants across five counties within Washington State, state-level legal statute and legislative documents, and automated court data.

I begin the book by describing the significance of monetary sanctions and the context of mass conviction and incarceration and the related consequences for the communities and individuals disproportionately affected.  In Chapter 2, Monetary Sanctions in the United States, I investigate how legal statutes governing state-level implementation of monetary sanctions compare.  Chapter 3, Legal Intent and Outcomes, examines the policy aims of monetary sanctions.  Using Washington State as a case study, I set out to explore how the fiscal consequences of the system map on to the state legal aims.  In Chapter 4, The Punishment Continuum, I explore other possible criminal justice aims that monetary sanctions might serve.  Here I rely on the automated, interview and observational data to illustrate county-level variation in the assessment and sanctioning of fiscal sentences within Washington State.  In Chapter 5, Law-in-Action: Bureaucrats and American Values, I unveil how courthouse decision-makers, most notable non-elected clerks, use informal norms and values to apply their discretion in the sentencing, monitoring and sanction of monetary sanctions.  In Chapter 6, The Experiences and Consequences of Legal Debtors, I delve into the economic, legal, and emotional consequences individuals and their families face as a result of the fiscal sentence.  Chapter 7, The Permanent Punishment, concludes by summarizing the practice of monetary sanctions, and describes how this system relates to past systems of American social control and power.

In sum, A Pound of Flesh illustrates how local community and court culture influence contemporary notions of who should be held accountable for their actions by the criminal justice system.  We see that poor defendants, those frequently with limited mental and physical capacities, under-educated, unemployed, racialized and impoverished will never have the ability to express such accountability and shed their connection with the criminal justice system.  Put simply, monetary sanctions serve as a punishment tool that permanently penalizes and marginalizes the vast majority of criminal defendants.

Review:  Western, Bruce.  2017. Theoretical Criminology

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