Public Health Post: What are some solutions to the problem as you see it?
Nusrat Choudhury: The first is to enforce constitutional law. Whenever someone can’t pay money to a court, they should get the opportunity to explain themselves before there’s any kind of punishment. This opportunity could, for example, look like a hearing on a person’s ability to pay and their financial circumstances.
Second, we have a long tradition in this country of presuming innocence until a person is proven guilty and insuring the right to a lawyer. This practice needs to be upheld when people can’t pay money to courts. Right now, too many people are standing before judges, or not even being given a court hearing, and are being arrested on warrants when they cannot pay money to a court for a violation. This practice is contrary to the notion of fairness that is embedded in our constitution and our principles as Americans.
Third, judges in America have a lot of discretion when they’re sentencing people. Right now, what we see is that if a person with financial means gets a traffic ticket, they can pay that ticket and walk away. But that very same ticket for a person who doesn’t have the money plunges them into a cycle in which they’re followed with warrants, driver’s license suspension (where they can lose their job), and risk taking care of their children. Judges need to make sure that sentences are non-excessive, equitable, and aren’t disproportionately punishing people simply because of their poverty.
PHP: Have there been trial programs that have been successful?
In 2015, we sued the city of Biloxi, Mississippi for jailing people illegally when they couldn’t pay money to the court system. This lawsuit resulted in a landmark settlement agreement in 2016 which was enforced for three years. The city created a public defender’s office to make sure that whenever someone couldn’t pay fines and fees, they could request a lawyer to help advocate for them with the judge. When people got those lawyers, people reported greater sense of trust in the system and got better results. The judges, who heard cases of people who fell behind on their fine payments, used alternatives like reducing the amount that people had to pay, giving time extensions, or imposing community service.
States like Ohio, Washington, and Michigan have issued guidance to judges reminding them that the constitution prohibits punishing people because of their poverty and requires a hearing before anyone can be jailed when they can’t pay money to a court.
We’ve even seen progress at the national level. Two years ago, the American Bar Association issued what it called the “Ten Guidelines of Court Fines and Fees.” These 10 guidelines endorse the principle that no one should be sanctioned simply because of their poverty.
PHP: Do other countries handle such debts differently or are such problems solely American?
The fine and fee amounts you see imposed on people when they can’t pay, and then the collateral impact, like jail and license suspension, are more of an American problem than a problem you see anywhere else. In Europe, there have been experiments with what are called “proportional fines.” For example, a penalty will vary based on the financial circumstances of the person who is being sentenced. In this system, a person who has more money will be given a much bigger fine than someone who doesn’t, and it’s calculated using a system that takes in account how serious the offense is as well as the financial ability of the individual. This is something that is being experimented within certain parts of the United States. However, you see this huge difference in just the amount of money we charge to people. We’re generating revenue off the backs of people in the court system and that is not something that we see in Europe.
PHP: How might the average citizen or public health student take on this cause?
There’s a great need for people thinking about public health to advise court systems on how to best protect people in the system with mental health challenges. Most people involved in the criminal legal system in America are deeply impoverished people, many of whom are suffering from mental health challenges. The practices that criminalize poverty capitalize on this.
People get notices that they don’t understand and do not receive a lawyer to help them navigate the system. I think there’s an opportunity for partnership here with public health professionals to really advise court systems on how to treat people humanely and in a way that actually helps enable and empower them to advocate for themselves with the help of a lawyer.
Photo courtesy of Nusrat Choudhury