Professors warn of ‘perpetual debt’ caused by U.S. criminal justice system

The Minneapolis impound lot fills quickly with ticketed cars each snow emergency. (Photo by Tony Webster)

The U.S. criminal justice system in many cities and towns around the country operates a “predatory” system.  For example, if a simple parking ticket is not paid on time, fines and late fees accumulate and the offender can be put in jail.

This is called “predatory governance,” which was exposed in Ferguson, Missouri in a U.S. Justice Department report after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer.  It found the city’s population of 21,000 — two-thirds of which are Black — used fines, fees and other tactics to target Blacks, working class folk and poor people to generate revenue. Ferguson’s “aggressive” collection of outstanding fines and fees in 2013 made up one-fifth of the city’s entire revenue base, an 80 percent increase from two years earlier.

University of Minnesota Public Affairs Professor Joe Soss (Courtesy of Joe Soss

Locally, a “No Parking” ticket in Hennepin County is $32; $42 for an expired meter, snow emergency or street cleaning ticket. In Minneapolis, if the ticket is paid within 30 days of receipt, it is $45 in Minneapolis. A five dollar late fee is added if paid within 55 days, plus a $25 delinquency (late) fee.

Speeding tickets can start at $118, with a “speeding surcharge” if you are found driving 20 or more miles over the posted speed limit; a $75 “criminal/traffic” surcharge and…a three dollar fee from the Hennepin County law library fee would be added to the ticket.

According to the Hennepin Violations Bureau (, you are admitting you’re “guilty” if you pay the ticket and the citation is entered into the court record system. If that citation is not paid on time, you are penalized with added late fees or your driver license can be suspended. All unpaid fines and late fees are sent to the Minnesota Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for further action or sent to a collection agency.

“This is an old, old story” of predatory practices in U.S. history, dating back to slavery, the use of prison labor, child labor and seizing Native American land, says University of Minnesota Public Affairs Professor Joe Soss, whose work includes examining inequality and race in public policy. Professor Soss and Joshua Page, a sociology associate professor, are researching the “financialization” of the criminal justice system in this country; they plan to publish the findings in a book next year.

“This has been going on since the 1990s, but it really escalated when the Great Recession hit around 2007. It has been a growing thing,” explains Soss in his campus office at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The Ferguson predatory practice “was highly targeted and intentional” toward Black citizens, he points out. “The top officials of Ferguson were budgeting increases in fines and fees, and other things. About 90 percent of the tickets were being imposed on Black people.”

The professor noted predatory governance is clearly an issue in Minneapolis as well. Cedar-Riverside and the North Side are two examples. “When routine stops are driven in some ways by racial bias issues and also this financial side, the more you are pulling people over and the more you are ticketing them, you are multiplying the chances that something can go bad.”

Paying the ticket when first received for some isn’t as simple as it seems, reiterates Soss.   “There are lots and lots of people who are living on such meager resources that they really don’t have the means to deal with a $100 fine or fee. Then when they can’t pay right away, it quickly starts to mount.”

Soss calls this “perpetual debt,” as was the case with late Philando Castile, who reportedly was cited over 80 times in 15 years. He amassed at least $7,000 in overdue fines and lost his license several times for failing to pay the fines. Castile, who was shot and killed by a police officer last summer in Falcon Heights during a traffic stop was in perpetual debt, notes Soss.

Says Soss, “I was shocked to some degree how widespread it was, how deep it went. People pay about $40 billion dollars on criminal justice debt. Although men of color are [disproportionately] targeted by the criminal justice system, that is really disproportionately women of color who bare a lot of these financial costs — it might be the sister, [girlfriend] or the mom who is going to put their money on the line.”

Finally, under the Obama administration, the Justice Department “was very active” in looking at predatory practices in U.S. cities “but things have changed greatly under the Trump administration, and I think we should be quite worried.” Communities with large concentrations of Blacks and low-income folk should be “real worried” about the “ratcheting” up of these practices,” concludes Soss.


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