“Judge gavel and money on white background” by Marco Verch Professional Photographer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Court fines and fees are hardly new, however, their use has increased in recent years. New research from Ilya Slavinski and Becky Pettit shows how law enforcement agencies are using “legal financial obligations” to further punish and constrain the same groups of people that have been historically disadvantaged by incarceration. 

Slavinski and Pettit analyzed data from 254 counties in Texas, a large, diverse state that collected over $1 billion in legal financial obligations in 2016. They found that Texas jurisdictions with more Republican voters issued monetary sanctions at a much higher rate than less conservative regions. This finding parallels prior research that links party identification with incarceration rates. Slavinski and Pettit also observed that heavy use of fines and fees was not associated with higher crime rates. This is consistent with research showing that some  “tough on crime” policies are more closely tied to politics, race, and class than they are to crime control. 

Relatedly, the researchers found that legal fines and fees were disproportionately concentrated in predominantly Black and Latinx areas. This builds on previous research that links incarceration rates to perceptions of “racial threat.”  

Based on their Texas data, Slavinski and Pettit report that legal financial obligations are often combined with jail and prison time, rather than serving as an alternative to incarceration. This means that after people leave incarceration, they continue to be watched by authorities to ensure that they pay their legal financial obligations. By coupling prison sentences and legal fees in this way, the state has used legal debt to extend the surveillance and control of historically marginalized populations.