Protections in the Justice System for People with Low Incomes

On this page: Legal Rights

Background

When a person cannot pay civil or criminal obligations because of poverty, penalties for nonpayment may escalate rapidly so that the obligation becomes too large to satisfy ever. One analysis found that more than seven million people had their licenses suspended because of their inability to pay a court or other administrative debt. Some have argued that law enforcement agencies are using fines to raise revenue for state and local governments rather than to improve public safety. They say this effectively criminalizes poverty.

When license suspensions are due to a person’s inability to afford the fine, rather than for unsafe driving or committing a serious crime, they create unnecessary negative consequences. They can prevent older adults from being able to obtain housing and employment, drive to a medical appointment, or even have a chance to socialize with friends and family. As a result, people often prioritize paying off these legal obligations to their detriment over necessities such as food, medical care, rent, and utilities.

PROTECTIONS IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM FOR PEOPLE WITH LOW INCOMES: Policy

Penalties

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Enforcement of civil and criminal laws should avoid penalizing people with escalating fines, loss of rights, or criminal penalties when the person subject to enforcement cannot satisfy the civil or criminal legal obligations due to poverty.