Most disputes in U.S. state courts are minor infractions, such as traffic violations. Yet for Americans living in poverty, a traffic ticket is not merely annoying; it could result in a worst-case scenario of losing a job or being thrown in jail.
A recent study by one of us found that online court software may offer a solution for minor legal disputes by connecting needy defendants to courts, for free, from anywhere with internet access: a public library, a family member’s mobile device, or a shelter. By improving and easing communication, online access can empower poor litigants to seek appropriate forms of relief, facilitate information sharing, and ultimately improve the accuracy of justice system outcomes.
Disadvantaged people not only have to deal with the justice system more often, but they experience worse outcomes.
Our justice system rarely considers the barriers that prevent poor, disadvantaged people from complying with court obligations. For instance, Americans who have been evicted may lack a steady address at which the court can contact them. A missed letter from the court can result in a missed court date and, ultimately, a bench warrant for arrest.
And when neither the law nor judges specifically work to accommodate poverty when setting fines, they unintentionally increase inequality by placing poor offenders in financial quicksand.
Consider the example of Harriet Cleveland. Ms. Cleveland could not afford car insurance and received multiple tickets for driving uninsured. When she could not pay those fines, the court suspended her driver’s license.
Her fines grew over time, ballooning into the thousands of dollars. After four years, despite having paid thousands—many times more than her initial fine—she still owed $2,714, leading the court to issue a warrant for her arrest.
The police arrested her in front of her grandson, and the court required her to pay $1,554 immediately or spend 31 days in jail. Ms. Cleveland could not pay that much immediately, so she was taken straight to jail.
Harriet Cleveland’s story is not unusual. In March 2015, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report about police and court practices in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, which outlined the systematic criminalization of minor infractions like illegal parking or lawn care violations.
In Ferguson, fines were high and failure to pay produced cascading penalties: growing fees, license suspensions, and, ultimately, jail—sometimes even when the minor offender had already paid more than ten times the initial fine amount.
Unfortunately, these policies are not rare in the United States; there are instances in all 50 states of needy defendants being jailed for supposed “refusal” to pay court debts in what the ACLU has coined “modern-day debtor’s prisons.”
As a general matter, fines are considered an attractive way to punish minor legal offenses, when compared to incarceration. However, unlike Finland’s tickets that fine in proportion to one’s income, the United States’ flat fines can crush society’s most vulnerable while providing little deterrence for the wealthy.
Imprisoning offenders for their inability to pay fines is not allowed by law; however, when courts begin by assuming that people can afford fines, nonpayment is interpreted as the individual choosing to disobey the court. Courts can jail people who refuse to pay.
People who know that ability to pay is relevant (which is rare) are always free to try to convince a court of their indigency—in person. But in-person hearings burden the elderly, single parents, and those with a disability. And lost wages from missed shift work, high childcare burdens, and hefty transportation costs all take a toll. You must pay to show the court you can’t pay.
As a consequence, without a realistic opportunity for the poor to explain their circumstances, debtor’s prisons remain a reality—despite what the law says.
Finding a Solution
Technology has the potential to disrupt this debtor’s prison cycle. Software offers a way to standardize assessments and can be fine-tuned to eliminate bias and create more accurate determinations of how much someone can afford. Court software also allows for online proceedings, which eliminate an enormous hurdle for people with disabilities or who are in poverty: getting to the courthouse during business hours.
Our study mentioned above assessed an online poverty assessment tool’s use in six pilot courts by reviewing online court records and administering interviews, surveys, and vignette exercises. The results indicate improved accuracy and reduced bias in ability-to-pay assessments.
Interviews with judges and surveys of offenders revealed that both groups were generally quite enthusiastic about using the online software. The software delivered more and better information compared with an in-person hearing, with less time and effort; judges appeared to be more confident in the accuracy of their decision making; and users felt the process was fair and just.
Case-level data revealed that certain symptoms of inability to pay—such as housing insecurity, bankruptcy, unemployment, use of shelters, and violent victimization—were strikingly common among poor offenders seeking relief at these six courthouses.
Surveys showed that the judges felt more comfortable raising sensitive topics, like disability, addiction, and mental health, which could be embarrassing to discuss in open court. Also, the software’s process largely shielded defendants’ race and appearance from judges, reducing the likelihood of bias.
Surveys of offenders also revealed that most would have missed their court hearings without the software allowing them to attend remotely. As an unexpected bonus, use of the software for remote hearing attendance appears to reduce crowding and delay in the courthouses.
By reducing the need for people to come into court, those in poverty, with mobility impairments, or with serious health concerns were better able to communicate with the court and get their legal issues resolved.
By enabling offenders to contextualize their circumstances and financial hardships, especially when they could not attend an in-person court hearing, the online poverty assessment tool allowed disadvantaged people to be heard and gave judges the information they needed to set manageable payment plans or offer community service for those truly unable to pay.
Improved assessment accuracy leads to fines that are efficient for society: it eliminates back-breaking debts, debtor imprisonment, and financial waste from local governments trying to collect money that offenders just do not have.
Should these results continue, fines could become the socially-attractive sanctioning option they were intended to be.
Meghan M. O’Neil & J.J. Prescott. “Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pa,” in Law and Contemporary Problems 2019.
Image: Dunrie Greiling via Court Innovations (licensed for this article)