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Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States1

University of Washington

The expansion of the U.S. penal system has important consequences for poverty and inequality, yet little is known about the imposition of monetary sanctions. This study analyzes national and state‐level court data to assess their imposition and interview data to identify their social and legal consequences. Findings indicate that monetary sanctions are imposed on a substantial majority of the millions of people convicted of crimes in the United States annually and that legal debt is substantial relative to expected earnings. This indebtedness reproduces disadvantage by reducing family income, by limiting access to opportunities and resources, and by increasing the likelihood of ongoing criminal justice involvement.