Do Court Fines and Penalties Criminalize Poverty?

FT Contributor  | 

If you’ve ever been in trouble with the law, you probably have an understanding of how expensive it can be. From court fines to lawyer fees, required drug testing, and beyond, it can be expensive to get yourself out of legal trouble.

Over the last 50 years, the number of people behind bars in the U.S. has increased by more than 500%. A growing number of legislators are fighting for prison reform. Instead of packing prisons, some criminals serve more humane sentences from the comfort of their homes. This requires the use of ankle bracelets and other monitoring systems, which come at a charge to the person serving the sentence.

An ankle bracelet charge is just one example of the financial difficulty that court fines and penalties create. The fees associated with legal trouble are leading many people to argue that the United States justice system is criminalizing poverty by burying people in an unmanageable amount of debt.

The Cycle of Poverty

Poverty is based on the financial assets and earning potential of a person. While assets include things like physical property, earning potential includes factors such as education, employment history, creative ideas and licenses, a network of relationships, and overall culture. Each of these elements is vital to the success of a person in our society, but getting arrested and having to serve time can cause a person to get caught in a cycle of poverty.  

Once this cycle begins, it’s hard to get out. When they go to jail, a person is unable to earn a steady income — a vital part of staying out of poverty. In addition, the convict must pay a variety of fees. For example, over 3.6 million people are under probation in the U.S., for which they have to pay a monthly fee in most states. If a person on probation has not been able to get a job with a steady income, it’s easy to see how they can quickly slip into poverty.

High Court Costs Harm Poor Populations

The legal system is complex and the court’s fee structure is no different. Each U.S. court has various fees that they charge for services, depending on the case. Considering the fact that households in poverty have practically no money for savings or investments, much less to fulfill their basic needs, it shouldn’t be surprising that even seemingly inconsequential court fees can have a dramatic impact on poor populations.

An inability to pay the fees for your trial may result in further legal action. In some cases, not paying legal bills results in a contempt of court charge and arrest, further impacting the cycle of poverty. Since poor populations are often making minimum wage (or no wage at all), they are more vulnerable to high legal fees and other expenses.

What Happens if You Don’t Pay Court Fees?

An inability to pay the fees associated with court cases may result in jail time. Unpaid fees may cause a district judge to issue a warrant for the debtor’s arrest, which creates a “debtor’s prison.”

According to David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, the U.S. Constitution is very clear that a person cannot be jailed for an inability to pay debts, but this still happens in some cases. There are many ways fees can arise.

For example, when a hearing is delayed because the defendant fails to appear, a judge will set an amount as collateral that the defendant has to pay to go free. While this is supposed to encourage the defendant to return to court, collateral can also equal the amount that the defendant would have had to pay if they were found guilty. If the defendant can’t pay, they’ll be jailed for a period of time.

These fees arise because of pressure on the court system to collect money. Uncollected fees are compiled into a report that is issued to the public, which can quickly cause an uproar of civil distrust.

How Fines Affect Poor Populations

The fines associated with courts and other legal obligations can be impossible for people in poverty to reasonably pay. Being unable to pay only makes matters worse for the impoverished individual, because it results in additional fees and even jail time.

What’s more, studies have found that African American communities pay high legal fees. Priceonomics concluded that Ferguson, Missouri was one of the many cities that received 10% or more of their revenues from legal fines, and Ferguson’s population is 67% African American.

Furthermore, a Harvard study on criminal justice debt found that there is no clear answer as to how much an area can benefit from legal fines that are collected. These fees, which seemingly have an unclear purpose, can prevent impoverished individuals from furthering their financial goals, leaving them with unpaid bills and mounting debt, ultimately worsening the cycle of poverty.

Fighting the Criminalization of Poverty

With the recent political climate in the United States and media attention surrounding the issue, the fight against the criminalization of poverty presses on. The following efforts and approaches can mitigate the effects of court fines or fees on people who are in poverty:

  • Challenging the constitutionality of debtor’s prisons.
  • Challenging the constitutionality of being fined or stripped of a license as a result of an inability to pay.
  • Alternative repayment programs.
  • Traffic law policy changes.
  • Law reform requiring people with unpaid fines to appear before a judge rather than automatically receiving jail time.
  • Establishing debt-repayment programs.
  • Ending racial profiling.
  • Allowing courts to waive fees for low-income individuals. 
  • Establishing a homelessness bill of rights.

How Legislators Are Trying to Stop the Cycle

Many state legislators are taking steps to stop the vicious poverty cycle that court fines and penalties place people in. California Senator Holly Mitchell is fighting for the elimination of administrative court fees, which would relieve people from billions of dollars in debt.

Similarly, the Fines and Fees Justice Center strives to create a justice system that treats everyone equally by reforming the way each state handles legal fines and fees. The more legislators get involved, the more awareness is spread about the issue and the greater the impact their policy reform will have on ending the cycle of poverty.

Alternatives to Court Fines and Fees

Instead of falling further into debt or serving more jail time, there are several ways those indebted to the court can repay their fines and fees. Some alternatives to strict fines and fees include:

  • Waivers and flexible payment plans: Fees will be waived for those who fall into a certain tax bracket and flexible payment plans will allow debt to be repaid over time.
  • Work release: Prisoners are allowed to work, earning money to pay their fines and fees.
  • Community service: In lieu of paying the fines and fees, a certain number of community service hours must be contributed.
  • Suspended sentences and probation: This eliminates the need for a full trial, lessening the overall costs.
  • Participation in an addiction treatment program: For those who struggle with addiction and have a hard time securing work, this is a viable alternative.
  • Weekend jail time: For nonviolent crimes, weekend jail time allows defendants to maintain their job while serving time and being able to afford their fines and fees.

The cycle of poverty is a big problem in the United States that is worsened by court fines and legal penalties. However, prison reform is on the rise, as are alternative solutions for repayment.


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