Considering the Process of Debt Collection in Community Corrections: The Case of the Monetary Compliance Unit

Date01 February 2021
Published date01 February 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2021, Vol. 37(1) 128 –147
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1043986220971394
Considering the Process
of Debt Collection in
Community Corrections:
The Case of the Monetary
Compliance Unit
Nathan W. Link1, Kathleen Powell2, Jordan M. Hyatt2,
and Ebony L. Ruhland3
Monetary sanctions levied on individuals on probation and parole may dramatically
influence their ability to reintegrate into the community and to complete their
community supervision. Yet very little work has empirically assessed how agencies
respond to these obligations. This is critical, given that individuals under community
supervision occupy a liminal space: free in the community yet often at risk of violation,
rearrest, additional fines, or re-incarceration. In this article, we introduce an approach
to the collection and management of monetary sanctions by an adult probation and
parole agency in one Pennsylvania county. This specialized department focuses solely
on repayment of fines, fees, and costs for a subset of probationers and parolees who
have completed all other supervision requirements. We complement the conceptual
overview by presenting administrative data on this caseload (N = 5,811) to describe
the population under supervision and assess the factors associated with debt amount,
having difficulty with repayment, and being the subject of an enforcement action for
non-payment. We conclude with a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of
this model compared with historical and other existing models of debt enforcement
during community supervision.
monetary sanctions, fees, criminal justice debt, probation, parole
1Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, USA
2Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
3University of Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
Nathan W. Link, Rutgers University, 405-7 Cooper Street, Camden, NJ 08102, USA.
971394CCJXXX10.1177/1043986220971394Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeLink et al.
Link et al. 129
Involvement with the criminal justice system is associated with a range of collateral
consequences. An extensive literature documents numerous harmful impacts of being
arrested, convicted, and punished (Kirk & Wakefield, 2018), including the imposition
of legal financial obligations (LFOs), such as the fines, fees, and costs incurred from
contact with the criminal justice system. Much of the relevant scholarship documents
the prevalence, amount, and consequences of LFOs assessed against individuals.
Legal debts are often substantial in amount, can exacerbate preexisting inequalities,
and adversely affect the prison reentry process (Bannon et al., 2010; Harris et al.,
2010; Link & Roman, 2017; Pleggenkuhle, 2018). Moreover, the study of LFOs
assessed and/or collected by community correctional agencies suggests that leverag-
ing traditional law enforcement tools, such as arrest or incarceration, in the event of
nonpayment can result in additional and serious legal and collateral consequences
(Link et al., 2020), often disproportionately impacting people of color (Harris, 2016).
However, despite a growing awareness that LFOs cause a serious burden to those
under supervision, the exact processes of payment collection and enforcement used by
criminal justice agencies remain poorly understood. This gap in understanding exists
amid an expansion of financial penalties of criminal justice involvement within the past
10 years and an acknowledgment that LFOs are relied upon as an essential revenue
stream for justice system agencies (Menendez et al., 2019). The mechanisms and poli-
cies surrounding debt collection are important for two key reasons: (a) they help to
contextualize the adverse individual-level consequences reported in the literature, and
(b) they clarify how institutions have responded to an increased emphasis on collecting
monetary sanctions. These institutional arrangements likely vary across jurisdictions
and constitute an important area of research as they potentially set in motion processes
that expand or retract the reach of the criminal justice system (Beckett, 2018).
In this article, we document one institutional arrangement used to oversee LFO
compliance: the creation of a distinct unit within a community correctional agency
specifically tasked with the collection of previously accumulated debt stemming from
monetary sanctions. This unit constitutes a departure from a “probation as usual” col-
lection model by monitoring individuals with outstanding LFOs who have otherwise
met all terms of supervision and, in turn, allowing them to escape the often onerous
restrictions of supervision while paying off old balances. In this structure, individuals
may face enforcement actions in response to non-compliance with payment agree-
ments, but punitive measures such as supervision violations or re-incarceration are not
used. Importantly, although this model is concerned primarily with the collection of
old debts, it is distinct from pay-only, private probation because there are no supervi-
sion conditions, potentially punitive direct criminal sanctions (e.g., revocation), or
additional fees (see Albin-Lackey, 2014). We describe the structure and policies that
govern this unit, highlighting how this model hybridizes criminal and civil systems in
the pursuit of legal debt repayment. We supplement this description with an analysis
of individuals under this specialized probation caseload, how much debt they owe, and
the use of levers to encourage payment. In this way, we begin to illustrate this particu-
lar type of collection model and its impact on people under supervision.

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