Equal Justice Under Law

The Issues


The legal system has failed its promise of equal justice. From police to prosecutors to courts and legislatures, both federal and state systems benefit the rich while harming people who are poor.

Although inequality is everywhere, it is most tragic to find it in our justice system. The justice system is premised on the notion that rich and poor are treated equally. But today, access to justice is based on how much a person can pay.  People who are poor are systemically treated worse than the rich. The results are endless cycles of poverty and counterproductive laws that make us less safe. Equal Justice Under Law is attempting to solve these problems by digging deep into the issues and righting every wrong we find. Our goal is to end inequality in the justice system.


There is injustice everywhere.  The last place there should be injustice is in the justice system.


Criminal justice policies should never be based on scapegoating or fear, but on improving well being.

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8 Ways America's Legal System Punishes People Who Are Poor



Money Bail

We currently have two justice systems: one for the rich and another for everybody else.  For hundreds of thousands of arrestees every year, the difference between freedom and jail depends solely on wealth status.  A wealthy person can buy her pre-trial freedom, keep her job, and live at home while preparing her defense. An arrestee who is poor must stay in jail for days, weeks, months, or years until her case resolves. Those detained prior to trial are more likely to lose their jobs, get evicted from their homes, and be unable to care for dependent relatives. The money bail system does nothing to promote liberty, public safety, or court appearance rates; all of these goals can be better achieved through other means, and needless pretrial detention actually increases crime rates. Money bail is a price tag on freedom that only serves as wealth-based discrimination.



Private Bail Companies

Private bail companies exacerbate the inequality caused by pretrial money bail. Those wealthy enough to pay their full bail amount get it back when their case ends — even if they are found guilty. But those who cannot afford their full bail amount (often over six figures) must contract with a private bail company to pay 10% — which can be tens of thousands of dollars — and that money is never returned. Those who can’t afford to pay 10% can be placed under predatory debt agreements with extortionate interest, creating a debt that will take years to pay off and take money away from basic amenities such as food, shelter, and transportation. In many cases, private bail companies continue to abuse impoverished individuals long after their criminal case has been resolved: even when the charges have been dismissed and an arrestee has been fully exonerated, private bail companies violate law and ethics through predatory techniques to secure payments.



Suspended Drivers Licenses 

In 38 states, someone will lose their driver’s license if they  cannot afford to pay their court debt, even for minor offenses like littering that have nothing to do with traffic safety. A valid driver’s license is the single most important factor in getting and maintaining a job. Residents with suspended licenses are even further burdened by not being able to fulfill daily responsibilities like caring for children, making doctor’s appointments, getting to the grocery store, and commuting to work. Without a license, everything becomes more expensive, as individuals are forced to pay for rides just to tend to the necessities of living. The government is trapping people in a cycle of poverty, making it even more unlikely that they will ever pay back the court debt that led to the suspension in the first place.



Excessive Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Aggressive police practices — such as stop and frisk and broken window policies — disproportionately target minority and low-income neighborhoods.  Whether it is a vindictive federal prosecution of a rural Native American family using medical marijuana or state prosecution of an amount of marijuana that is legal within the city limits — mandatory minimum punishments for victimless crimes are disproportionately directed at people living in poverty. Such individuals are easy targets for overzealous prosecutors: unable to afford legal counsel and aware of the catastrophic results of getting fired, people experiencing poverty lack the tools to effectively fight back. When someone is imprisoned for years or decades because of a victimless crime, the entire community suffers from the loss of a parent, sibling, co-worker, or employee.

Among the many tools prosecutors have to exact astonishingly long prison sentences, conspiracy drug laws are often misused to sentence those with little or no involvement in criminal activity — most often women who are the wives or sisters of suspects — to disproportionately harsh prison sentences. Women are frequently coerced, under the threat of mandatory minimum sentences, into testify against their loved ones in exchange for a plea bargain, and those who are unable to provide information on family members are sent to prison for decades. Because of mandatory minimum sentencing, innocent women spend far too long in prison.



Wealth-Based Banishment That Outlaws Low-Income Housing

In a particularly cruel version of the NIMBY effect (Not In My Back Yard), small towns in Arkansas and elsewhere prohibit the existence of homes within the city limits that are worth less than an arbitrary amount of money (sometimes $25,000, $15,000, or even $7,500). These ordinances have nothing to do with public health or safety but are an ill-disguised attempt to drive people experiencing poverty out of what modest shelter they have. These discriminatory laws banishing manufactured homes can result in already burdened individuals becoming homeless once they lose the only housing available to them.

Regulations to ensure that homes have potable water, safe sewage disposal, electricity, and functioning heat make sense. Regulations that use money as a proxy for these necessities are merely another form of wealth-based discrimination.



Private Probation Abuses

As our justice system gets more and more privatized, private probation companies have become one of the leading culprits for violating constitutional rights. The number of people on probation or parole is now higher than ever, and hundreds of thousands of individuals report to a private probation company. Counties are laying off their public probation officers and allowing private companies to earn profits from the citizenry.  Too often, these private companies do not provide needed rehabilitation services — such as help locating jobs or housing — and instead they threaten probationers with jail to squeeze out exorbitant “probation fees.”  Such practices destabilize housing, employment, and family relationships, and result in thousands of people going to jail simply because they are too poor to pay a private company.  Such wealth-based discrimination has no place in our justice system.



Parking Tickets to Debtors' Prisons

Across the country, thousands of people are unconstitutionally jailed simply for being poor. States pile on fines and fees, even when it is clear that the person is simply too poor to pay. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that someone cannot be punished for being poor. If a person genuinely cannot pay a debt to the state, then the state must find an alternate solution, such as community service, a payment plan, or reduction in the fine itself. Nevertheless, many states ignore longstanding constitutional precedent and jail people for fines they cannot pay, resulting in modern-day debtors’ prisons. The collateral damage to employment, child care, or education makes debtors’ prisons a tremendous — and unconstitutional — barrier to climbing out of the cycle of poverty. 



Sex Offense Registration Laws

Almost every state has a sex offense registration law that leads to homelessness and unemployment, increasing the risk factors that can lead to recidivism. More and more evidence is pointing to the conclusion that excessively punitive sex offense registration laws impose draconian lifelong punishment on thousands of people who pose no special risk. An estimated 900,000 individuals are on state registries, from those who committed offenses decades ago to “Romeo and Juliet” sexual encounters between teenagers. State laws that prohibit those convicted of a sex offense from living or working near a school or daycare (even if their offense had nothing to do with a child) drive people out of towns and cities and away from employment, family, and community support. One of our clients is forced to live under a bridge, rather than with his wife or brother, because their homes are both within a massive zone of exclusion — as is 80% of the entire city. Registry laws drive people into a cycle of poverty.




Wealth-Based Discrimination and the Criminalization of Poverty


Although Lady Justice wears a blindfold and the Scales of Justice are supposed to be evenly balanced between rich and poor, our justice system takes every opportunity to punish people who are poor.

The United States only represents 5% of the world’s population, but we account for 25% of those behind bars.  Far too often, it is the poorest who sit in jail or prison, even if they have never been convicted.  Police target poor communities, prosecutors take advantage of those who cannot afford legal representation, and judges give harsher sentences to those who are poor.  It is not a crime to be poor, and our justice system should stop punishing poverty.



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Policies That Create Cycles of Poverty


The role of government is to help end cycles of poverty by equipping people with the tools they need to live successful lives. 

If the government is not going to help end cycles of poverty, at the very least, it should not create them.  But throughout our justice system, laws create, exacerbate, and perpetuate cycles of poverty by stripping people of the resources needed to be positively contributing members of society.  We need to help people find jobs and establish homes so we can help stabilize housing and employment.  Our justice system should never cause homelessness, nor should it create cycles of poverty.




Over-Criminalization as a Default Instead of Creative Solutions


Too often, legislatures turn to punishment as the default approach to any problem they don’t like. 

Policy experts know that there are better solutions than simply punishing people, but our legislators fail to think critically toward creative solutions.The failed War on Drugs is perhaps the most extreme example of over-criminalization: our government has wasted billions of dollars jailing those suffering from addiction instead of spending money on prevention and treatment.  Time and time again, we see our justice system using punishment as a one-size-fits-all solution to every social problem.  We need to develop more thoughtful, creative solutions that improve the lives of everyone.




Counterproductive Laws that Make Us All Less Safe


By criminalizing poverty, our justice system is counterproductive.

Laws that increase unemployment and homelessness not only destroy communities, but they also make us less safe.  Academic research has confirmed that the best ways to reduce crime are by improving employment, promoting stable housing, and encouraging pro-social relationships.  By creating barriers to family relationships, employment, and housing, our justice system actually increases recidivism rates.  As a result of such counterproductive laws, we are all less safe.




Privatization of Our Justice System


Privatization of our criminal justice system puts profits over people and creates incentives for extortion, corruption, threats, and prolonged imprisonment.

Criminal justice should not be a profit center. This country’s legal system has for centuries been premised on neutral arbiters deciding guilt, innocence, and administration of justice. We mistrust any arrangement where actors in the system stray from their duty to administer justice impartially in exchange for personal profits. We are witnesses privatization of almost every feature of justice, including prisons, probation, GPS tracking devices, and even courts that use private individuals as judges. When private companies profit off of the jailing of others, perverse incentives corrupt our justice system with catastrophic results. These can only survive if they siphon money from the victims of mass incarceration. As long as they exist, their leaders will support policies that fill every jail bed and line corporate pockets.

At Equal Justice Under Law we are fighting to right these wrongs and strategizing solutions to overcome them.


Sources include: Phil Telfeyan, Professor Michelle Alexander, Professor Bill Quigley, the American Bar Association, the Sentencing Project, National Academies of Sciences, Economic Policy Institute, and the US Census. 


No person should spend a single day in jail solely because they cannot afford to make a monetary payment.