Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay

January 13, 2017

Gavel on top of hundred-dollar billsThe U-M Online Court Project is developing and testing a robust, objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay legal fines to enable courts to make more accurate determinations on ability to pay issues, reduce the number of individuals subjected to insurmountable escalating penalties, and help courts assess when financial sanctions are truly appropriate.

In March 2015, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report that outlined the systematic criminalization of offenses like parking and minor traffic tickets, and even unmowed lawns. Fines and failure to pay resulted in cascading consequences that illustrate the legal cost of being poor: mounting fines and late fees, license suspensions, and jail. Those affected were disproportionately impoverished and black. As a result, courts across the nation looked at how they handle ability to pay issues and the Michigan Supreme Court handed down new rules that take into consideration material hardship and the defendant’s ability to comply.

The U-M Online Court Project (OCP) will develop and test a robust, objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay that will be implemented in partnership with the Michigan 31st District Court of Hamtramck (which has a poverty rate of 48.5%). The method will help defendants provide courts with a complete picture of their financial stability in a fair manner and will assist courts in exploring alternative sanctions for those who cannot pay. The tool will enable courts to make more accurate determinations on ability to pay issues, reduce the number of individuals subjected to insurmountable escalating penalties, and help courts assess when financial sanctions are truly appropriate. It will also further the conversation on the criminalization of poverty and the treatment of poverty in American courts.

JJ Prescott, U-M Law School