Financing Criminal Justice

Panel at the 2017 Rebellious Lawyering Conference

Feb 17, 2017


Livestream video link here.

In recent decades, state and local criminal justice systems across the country have become increasingly reliant on revenues generated through onerous fines and fees. Especially for poor, splintered municipalities that lack much of a permanent tax base, these monetary sanctions have been seen as an attractive alternative to progressive taxes on income and property. But governments’ increasing reliance on onerous fines and fees has come at a steep human cost.

Courts often fail to consider ability to pay in these assessments, and then attempt to coerce collections by punishing nonpayment through criminal sanction — making it harder to then secure employment, credit, housing, and public benefits. The predictable consequence of these policies is a pernicious cycle of poverty, indebtedness, and incarceration from which it can prove impossible for vulnerable families to escape. This basic design flaw—our decision to charge financially-constrained local government entities with administering our criminal justice system—has thus exacerbated mass violation of individual rights, particularly impacting low-income communities of color.

The results have been as catastrophic as they have been unnecessary. A recent DOJ investigation uncovered that the town of Ferguson, Missouri, was operating its criminal justice system to generate specific revenue targets, leading to unconstitutional court and policing practices; in one neighboring town, such fines and fees accounted for over a third of general revenues. This feature has given way to perverse incentives, and resurrected the specter of “debtors prisons”—the arrest and jailing of poor folks for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, accomplished through criminal justice procedures (especially pretrial detainment) that violate their most basic constitutional rights.

As evidence of the human costs of the criminal justice debt collection systems has emerged—spurred by innovative constitutional litigation—a number of states and local governments have begun to reexamine their use of criminal justice fines and fees. Moreover, established constitutional doctrine and consumer protection statutes already provide a set of (generally unenforced) basic rights that can be used to empower and protect holders of criminal justice debt.

The panel will provide accounts of the on-the-ground reality of criminal justice today and address a number of questions of immediate importance for law students and lawyers. Questions to be addressed include:

  • How do we get out of this situation?
  • What can lawyers and other advocates do?
  • What does a Trump presidency mean for criminal justice and civil law advocates trying to reroute these revenue streams?


Raúl Carrillo
Executive Committee
Modern Money Network
Mitali Nagrecha
National Criminal Justice Debt Initiative, Harvard Law School
Thomas Harvey
Co-Founder and Executive Director
ArchCity Defenders
Judge Jaribu Hill
Founder and Executive Director
Mississippi Workers' Center for Human Rights