Alexes Harris opens her comprehensive and almost daunting study about the effect of monetary sanctions in the state of Washington’s criminal justice system with a preface explaining that it isn’t the book she wanted to write.
"I wanted to write an American story about opportunity, perseverance, and progress,” she states. But her research wouldn’t let her.
Instead, Harris—a sociologist at the University of Washington—spent 162 pages vividly describing all facets of a system that seems geared toward keeping the poor in poverty. In doing so, “A Pound of Flesh: Monetary Sanctions as Punishment for the Poor” features more than just numbers. It does indeed tell a story.
Harris includes segments from her interviews with state judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks and defendants to provide competing perspectives on the purpose and necessity for fines and fees. She also uses excerpts from a variety of hearings she watched in the year it took her to research the topic.
Some of the stories are shocking, such as a prosecutor suggesting that homeless debtors could make up to $100 a day begging at the exit ramp to a highway to repay their fees, or an employer paying off a young man’s court fine, saying “as of today, I own him.”
Although short and peppered between statistics and charts, the tales are effective in providing a deep understanding of systemic poverty along with the classist and racist undertones that keep it entrenched in the criminal justice system. “A Pound of Flesh” tackles a heart-wrenching topic that would be easy to ignore if not for Harris’s careful and compelling narrative.
Harris’s book is available today from the Russell Sage Foundation.
For more information about “A Pound of Flesh,” read an excerpt on the Russell Sage Foundation website, or listen to Bloomberg BNA’s interview with Harris about the book and her experience researching it.
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