America’s legacy of racism and inequity has created a criminal legal system that privileges money over innocence. A protracted encounter with the courts has the potential to bankrupt entire families, keeping them and even their descendants in a cycle of disadvantage that can span generations. Yet there are also countless legal backwaters across the country where money, instead of insulating a defendant from the worst of the criminal legal system, puts a different kind of target on their back.

Drawing on the author’s lived experience as a formerly incarcerated citizen, this piece uses personal history to explore the different financial pressure points used in the criminal legal system: the ecosystem of cash bail, fines, and fees. It outlines differences in the ways such pressure is applied depending on a defendant’s economic standing, and argues that it amounts to a form of coercion inflicted on defendants from across the spectrum of financial privilege.

The piece also highlights how financial exploitation in the criminal legal system can leave defendants not only financially indebted to their support networks but emotionally indebted as well: ashamed of the money and time that was spent—and seemingly wasted—on trying to secure an outcome that the system, by design, always keeps just out of reach.

This content is only available via PDF.
You do not currently have access to this content.