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

Publication Abstract

O'Neil, Meghan, and J.J. Prescott. 2019. "Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay." Law and Contemporary Problems, 82: 199-226.

In this article, we discuss the challenges of using fines as alternative sanctions, even for minor transgressions, when punishing the poor. While fines have considerable advantages in the abstract, setting and enforcing fines accurately is informationally demanding, particularly when offenders may lack the ability to pay them. Current court processes are poorly designed for imposing appropriate fines in these circumstances, producing the breakdowns on display in Alabama, Missouri, and across the United States. Fines too often counterproductively morph into back-breaking debts and even incarceration. Incorporating online two-way communication and resolution technology (which we refer to as "platform" technology) into the sanctioning process may improve matters: by increasing access, offenders may be better able to share critical information; by automatically collecting and organizing key data, judges may be better able to digest this information; and by standardizing the process and excluding legally irrelevant information, decisions may become less prone to implicit biases. After explaining how such technology works, we use interview, survey, and case-level court data to assess the experiences of the judges,administrators, and litigants of six courts that recently adopted an online ability-to-pay (ATP) assessment tool. We conclude that such technology has the potential to deliver better access to justice, accuracy in outcomes, and efficiency in how courts operate.

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