UMN research team aids in study of inequities in criminal justice system

Minnesota joins other states in an attempt to unearth monetary inequality within its criminal justice system.

Chad Faust

Penalties for low-level criminals have put people in cycles of debt in Minnesota and eight other states, according to an ongoing national research project.

The University of Minnesota is one of eight schools participating in the planned five-year study, which aims to show how monetary sanctions and fees for crimes unequally affect people in the U.S.

University of Washington sociology professor Alexes Harris started the project while it was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation — an organization that donates to education and criminal justice reform causes.

“Our project is designed to see how Minnesota compares with Georgia, Texas, California and other states to see how they and their municipalities address certain issues,” said University professor of sociology and law Christopher Uggen.

There is a wide county-to-county disparity in the way criminals are financially handicapped across Minnesota, according to Uggen.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve really discovered in criminology that there’s been a real growth on monetary sanctions, particularly charging people in the criminal justice system fines and fees to fund the system, and the costs have risen in recent years,” Uggen said.

People have difficulty paying the sanctions in Minnesota, but the number of cases is low compared to other states around the country.

Uggen pointed to Philando Castile, who claimed he was trapped in a vicious cycle of low-level traffic violations he couldn’t pay before St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez fatally shot him in July 2016.

Prior to the project, Harris said when journalists would interview her about crime, they often asked about trends outside Washington, which she wasn’t able to answer.

“I’m the first academic that has really studied this process, and in all of the interviews, journalists would say, ‘Well, we know a lot about Washington, but how about other states?’”

In its second year, the project’s team has examined the ins and outs of monetary sanction laws within Minnesota, and researchers in other states have done the same.

The next part of the study will consist of researchers interviewing citizens from Minnesota counties who have been involved in monetary sanctions within the criminal justice system to find any patterns of inequality.

“It’s an exciting study, and there’s nothing like it right now. It’s a neat collaboration of both faculty and graduate students,” Harris said. “It’s a logical process to bring in a whole team of researchers from different levels of experience to study this part of the criminal justice system all around the United States.”