Undergraduate student researchers seen pictured here with Nick Allen (Equal Justice Fellow Attorney working on issues related to LFOs with Columbia Legal Services), Joel McAllister (King County Department of Judicial Administration, Financial Division Manager), Larry Gossett (Chair of the Metropolitan King County Council), Gayle Johnson (community advocate and works with Sound Mental Health) and Lisa Daugaard (Public Defender with The Defenders Association.)
Monetary sanctions (fines, fees and restitution otherwise known as Legal Financial Obligations, or LFOs) are gaining increasing attention as a collateral consequence of the U.S. penal expansion, yet little is known about the legal climate and courtroom practice of their imposition as a felony sentence. Through ethnographic observations and interviews Professor Alexes Harris has been investigating the role of judicial discretion in the imposition of financial penalties to offenders and how the court enforces the sentences and the types of sanctions and consequences for non-paying debtors.
This spring quarter, Prof. Harris' research took a new turn with the help of undergraduate students enrolled in her special topics research practicum. Through this course, senior sociology majors were offered a unique opportunity to study and participate in an on-going research project on LFOs imposed to people convicted of felony offenses in Washington State. These students not only contributed to Harris' research, but were able to gain a glimpse of what graduate study would be like and to develop needed job market skills such as team work, report writing, and presentation skills.
Throughout the course, students engaged in empirical and theoretical research on the criminal justice system, punishment and social stratification and inequality. After reading key research in the field and being trained in qualitative research methodologies, the students worked in teams to conduct observations of sentencing hearing and hearings involving sentence modifications. Teams also conducted content analyses of recent Washington State legislative debates and Supreme Court cases related to LFOs. In addition, the class pursued two individual projects based on research questions that arouse from early class discussions. One project examined the relationship between social characteristics of Washington State Superior Court judges and average amounts of LFOs imposed by county. The other project investigated the use of prison labor for private industries in Washington State.
On the last day of class, students presented their research to a panel of local policy makers and practitioners (pictured above) which sparked an insightful discussion about the students’ policy recommendations and realities the practitioners face when defendants are not able to pay their legal debts.