Laura and John Arnold Foundation addresses use of fines and fees in the criminal justice system

NEW YORK, NY—The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced a series of grants focused on the use of monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system. LJAF will fund seven projects as part of a broader strategy to coordinate, develop, and strengthen nationwide litigation efforts in this area and to deepen the field’s understanding of court-imposed monetary penalties.

LJAF’s investment comes amid increased attention to the use of fines and fees to fund local government budgets. In many jurisdictions nationwide, individuals convicted of minor crimes receive extensive fines, which can lead to jail time if they go unpaid. For example, the 2015 Department of Justice report on civil rights violations in Ferguson, Missouri, noted that by late 2014 more than three-quarters of the city’s population was subject to arrest warrants, almost all of which were issued because of a failure to pay a fine or a single failure to appear in court.

“We are putting people behind bars for their inability to pay fines even when we wouldn’t imagine throwing someone in jail for the underlying violation, which could be something as ordinary as jaywalking or driving with a broken tail light,” said Sam Brooke at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Also, convicted offenders who have completed their sentence of incarceration often leave prison with extensive debts, which, if unpaid, can result in numerous adverse outcomes that can thwart successful reentry back into society.

“The current system has dire consequences for a large number of Americans,” said Dr. Alexes Harris, associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington. “As a result of their inability to pay, debtors have their drivers’ licenses suspended, receive regular summons to court and warrants, and are even arrested and incarcerated.”

“We are seeing fines and fees completely disassociated from any larger criminal justice mission,” said Marc Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Cities have begun imposing fines not to reform behavior but as a revenue stream.”

LJAF has pledged funds to support strategic litigation efforts around fees and fines, as this approach can dramatically accelerate policy changes on monetary sanctions and the unfair practices surrounding the collection of debt. Further, litigation will highlight the statutory frameworks that must be changed in order to implement fairer policies. Litigation grant recipients include:

With these grants, LJAF has also become one of the leading funders of research into monetary penalties and their impacts. The new research projects funded by LJAF will provide critical empirical evidence on the extent of the problem. Research grant recipients include:

“We are optimistic that a well-coordinated, bipartisan national impact litigation strategy in this area will move the needle further and faster than statehouse policy efforts alone,” said LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Anne Milgram. “The goal of our criminal justice system should be to reduce the number of repeat offenses, not to trap individuals in a perpetual cycle of debt and punishment.”

About the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

LJAF is a private foundation that is working to address our nation’s most pressing and persistent challenges using evidence-based, multi-disciplinary approaches. Its investments are currently focused on criminal justice, education, evidence-based policy and innovation, research integrity, and science and technology. LJAF has offices in Houston, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

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