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

Gavel on top of hundred-dollar billsThe project: 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 result 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) developed and tested an objective digital method of evaluating litigants’ ability to pay. The method helps defendants provide courts with a complete picture of their financial stability in a fair manner and assists courts in exploring alternative sanctions for those who cannot pay. The goal is 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. 

The process: U-M Law School, local tech start-up Court Innovations, and local courts partnered to implement online dispute resolution in six Michigan courts serving communities with higher-than-average poverty rates. 

Researchers evaluated how judges determine low-income defendants’ ability to pay fines and fees using remote court technology. They wanted to examine whether the ability-to-pay tool would reduce bias, make courts more accessible, and improve upon existing in-person determination procedures. 

Results: Tentative results from this study suggest the ability-to-pay online tool offers a highly efficient, time-saving mechanism for people to coordinate with courts to resolve outstanding fees without having to face the barriers of taking time off work, finding childcare, or otherwise spending a day in court. 

The evaluation found the ability-to-pay online dispute tool greatly improved the judicial measurement of ability to pay for low-income defendants and helped to reduce bias. 

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

JJ Prescott, U-M Law School
Meghan O’Neil, U-M Institute for Social Research