Beyond Graduation: Economic Sanctions and Structural Reform

by Beth A. Colgan

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Abstract

In recent years, increased attention is being paid to the dangers of imposing economic sanctions in felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, municipal, and traffic courts because the imposition of unmanageable fines, fees, surcharges, restitution, and forfeitures can be financially devastating for people and their families. One reform that has gained traction is the graduation of economic sanctions to account for their financial effect. To date, considerations of the efficacy of graduated sanctions focus on the individual benefits that would accrue from a properly designed graduation mechanism. In other words, the value of graduation is measured by comparing it to the serious negative consequences for individuals that may result from the imposition of ungraduated sanctions. This Article uses abolitionism as a heuristic because it changes the baseline, measuring graduation against a fundamentally different set of goals: the dismantling of the carceral state and its replacement with systems of “transformative justice.” Doing so indicates that graduation is in some ways consistent with and in other ways in opposition to structural reforms of criminal legal systems writ large. This Article uses those insights to identify potential complementary reforms designed to bring graduation in better alignment with structural reform efforts.

Beyond Graduation: Economic Sanctions and Structural Reform

by Beth A. Colgan

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

In recent years, increased attention is being paid to the dangers of imposing economic sanctions in felony, misdemeanor, juvenile, municipal, and traffic courts because the imposition of unmanageable fines, fees, surcharges, restitution, and forfeitures can be financially devastating for people and their families. One reform that has gained traction is the graduation of economic sanctions to account for their financial effect. To date, considerations of the efficacy of graduated sanctions focus on the individual benefits that would accrue from a properly designed graduation mechanism. In other words, the value of graduation is measured by comparing it to the serious negative consequences for individuals that may result from the imposition of ungraduated sanctions. This Article uses abolitionism as a heuristic because it changes the baseline, measuring graduation against a fundamentally different set of goals: the dismantling of the carceral state and its replacement with systems of “transformative justice.” Doing so indicates that graduation is in some ways consistent with and in other ways in opposition to structural reforms of criminal legal systems writ large. This Article uses those insights to identify potential complementary reforms designed to bring graduation in better alignment with structural reform efforts.