Blood from a Turnip: Money as Punishment in Idaho

May 2021
By Jeffrey Selbin, Gus Tupper, Cristina Mendez, Idaho Law Review
Idaho law authorizes, and in many cases requires, state and local courts to charge fines and fees to people in adult and juvenile court. In 2019, the state legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations published a report acknowledging that “Idaho has made a policy decision to rely on fines and fees as a considerable source of court funding.” The bulk of the revenue comes from fines and fees assessed in criminal proceedings, and much of it flows to entities and programs outside the court system. Although courts collect some of the charged fines and fees, the study found that Idahoans cumulatively have “at least 206,289 unpaid [fines and fees] statewide totaling $195 million.” At the end of fiscal year 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court reported more than $268 million in delinquent court debt, or almost $150 for every resident of the state.

Idaho is hardly unique in this respect, but it is a long way from Ferguson, Missouri, where the phenomenon of state-sanctioned racialized wealth extraction first made its way into the public consciousness in the wake of Department of Justice investigation of the killing of Michael Brown. Through the lens of the OPE report and a major fines and fees case decided in June 2021 by the Idaho Supreme Court (Beck v. Elmore Cty. Magistrate Ct., No. 48475,, we explore Idaho’s growing reliance on monetary sanctions as a form of punishment and revenue, with a focus on juvenile delinquency fees. We situate Idaho’s scheme in the larger context of how monetary sanctions contribute to mass criminalization and racial injustice. Finally, we recommend specific steps for reform to end the harmful impact of monetary sanctions.