A good measure of how highly a government values “public safety” is the amount spent incarcerating people; a good measure of how little it values people is how much it costs an individual to be imprisoned.
In what University of Washington sociologist Alexes Harris calls our “punishment culture,” accountability for the convicted is carried out through modern-day debtor’s prisons. So-called “legal financial obligations”—fines and fees to fund jails and courtrooms—have become an invisible ball-and-chain for citizens condemned to eternal financial purgatory.
A brush with the police for pot possession might quickly spiral into a stiff penalty for a missed court date, deepening legal debt, missed work, re-arrest, a longer rap sheet. In daily life, the accompanying stigma layered over indebtedness “perpetuates inequality among African American and Latino men and among high school dropouts in the employment market.” The long-term opportunity cost could include mental-health crisis, forgone voting rights, and chronic recidivism, because people with nothing left to give also have nothing left to lose.
The question of poor individuals’ “debt to society” in the criminal justice infrastructure has exploded amid high-profile police-violence scandals, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri, where the bullet that killed Michael Brown sparked riots and exposed patterns of criminalization that afflict mutually reinforcing social and economic damage. A recent Department of Justice investigation uncovered a system in which officials see black citizens “less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”
Harris’s long-term study, A Pound of Flesh, has tracked formerly incarcerated individuals in Washington to show that a generation of massive public investment in criminal justice (and simultaneous disinvestment in social programs) has spawned a secondary industry feeding off people’s inability to afford public costs levied on their basic rights. The penalties that pile on “practically represent a sentence for cost recoupment, but symbolically they also represent a sentence of accountability,” resulting not only in financial loss but “reproduction of social inequality.”