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.
It has become apparent that being poor is in itself a crime in many states, cities, and counties and that crime is punished with additional burdens. For those who can afford it, a $50 parking ticket may be no more than an annoyance. But for those who don’t have the money to pay it, a parking ticket can spiral out of control when late fees and interest accrue. Eventually, the unpaid court debt leads to the state suspending a driver’s license or issuing a court summons. Continuing to drive to get to work or failing to pay then leads to criminal charges and, finally, jail.
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 wealthy. People who are poor remain in jail pre-trial, resulting in a higher conviction rate. Individuals who can afford it post bail and actively prepare a legal defense - free to go on their way while people who can’t languish in jail. These counterproductive policies result in an endless cycle of poverty that cost everyone and make us all less safe.
It is no mystery about where the government needs to intervene — first, by stopping the persecution of people who are already struggling to get by, and second by helping to alleviate their struggle. Our work at Equal Justice Under Law is designed to bring about the change our justice system needs. We take cases others view as losing causes and file class action lawsuits to benefit not only our clients but people who are suffering from the same abuse of power. We blaze new legal paths. We represent those who are underrepresented. We filed the first statewide legal challenges to money bail. We won the first statewide injunction against driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court debt. We are not afraid to tackle problems that have gone unaddressed because of fear, inertia, or lack of imagination - to end wealth-based inequality in the justice system.
8 Examples of How America's Legal System Punishes People Who Are Poor
1. 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.
2. 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.
3.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.
4. Excessive Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Proactive 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
7. Parking Tickets to Debtors' Prison
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.
8. 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.