Read a chapter from Prof. Harris' book here.
OVER SEVEN MILLION AMERICANS are either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, with their criminal records often following them for life and affecting access to higher education, jobs, and housing. Court-ordered monetary sanctions that compel criminal defendants to pay fines, fees, surcharges, and restitution further inhibit their ability to reenter society. Sociologist ALEXES HARRIS presents findings from her book, A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor, which draws from extensive sentencing data, legal documents, observations of court hearings, and interviews with defendants, judges, prosecutors, and other court officials. Highlighting variations in how monetary sanctions are imposed, she shows how judges and court clerks hold a considerable degree of discretion in sentencing and rely on individual values—such as personal responsibility, meritocracy, and paternalism—to determine how much and when offenders should pay. Harris finds that fiscal sentences, imposed disproportionately on low-income minorities, help create a permanent economic underclass of those too poor to make make regular payments towards this pernicious debt. Finally, Harris proposes ways to end a two-tiered legal system that imposes additional burdens on already-marginalized groups.
ALEXES HARRIS is a University of Washington Presidential Term Professor in Sociology. 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. Her book, A Pound of Flesh (2016), documents the contemporary relationship between the United States' systems of social control and inequality. Using a mixed-method approach (court observations, interviews with court actors and defendants, review of legal statute and cases, and statistical analysis of court automated data), it analyzes the particular policies and mechanisms used within the criminal justice system to impose and monitor sanctions to poor people who do not pay their legal debts, and I examine the consequences of this process. Outlining how local community and court culture and financial constraints influence contemporary notions of who should be held accountable for their actions by the criminal justice system, Harris argues that monetary sanctions serve as a punishment tool that permanently penalize and marginalize the poor.