The Price of Poverty: How Poverty Impacts Criminal Justice

Regardless of guilt or innocence, battling for justice comes at a cost. For some the price tag on justice may be more than they can afford.

Picture this: You’re a college student at a local community college working part time as a secretary in your school’s financial aid office. On your way home from class you smoke a cigarette, then toss it out of your car window into the empty left lane. A police officer happens to be rolling up behind you and catches you flicking the cigarette out of the window. The officer then pulls you over and gives you a littering ticket—a charge that could range from $100 to $1,000 in West Virginia

For another person who doesn’t have school costs, living expenses and a low wage, this penalty may be affordable, but for you, coming up with the couple hundred dollars is going to be near impossible. 

The penalty alone is expensive, not to mention hiring an attorney and paying the additional municipal fees added by the court

Fines and fees associated with criminal justice costs can tally up quickly. Attorneys charge an hourly rate, typically hundreds of dollars an hour, and some even expect clients to pay up front before they’ll agree to represent them.  

Even if you don’t need an attorney, simply paying for the cost of a ticket may not be possible in the allotted time before your court date. According to a report from the Federal Reserve from May of last year, almost half of all American adults can’t afford a $400 emergency expense, and more than one-fifth of all adults aren’t able pay the entirety of their monthly bills. 

An individual struggling to pay regular bills is likely to struggle in the instance of paying off citations, parking tickets, or criminal fines and fees. If you can’t afford to pay a citation or a ticket, you may be forced to serve time in jail. 

Municipal courts are able to make a profit from jailing individuals unable to pay the costs associated with misdemeanors like a traffic violation or a littering citation. Judges aren’t mandated to sentence individuals to jail time for not being able to pay charges at their court appearance, but knowing the court is able to make a profit from these sentences could certainly incentivize this kind of outcome. 

Understanding the nuances of court fines and fees, let’s get back to the story. Say, hypothetically, you can’t pay the cost of your ticket. Once enrolled in a payment program you miss a payment. Instead of sending you to jail, your license gets suspended. Now you have to find rides to and from work. If you aren’t able to find transportation, you can’t get to work. If you can’t work, you can’t pay money towards your fees. 

It’s also worth noting that you may be at risk of losing your job permanently, which could threaten any former stability in a person’s life. The compounding consequences snowball into an outcome that might not solely affect them, but their loved ones. Children aren’t blind to the stress their parents face. It goes without saying that financial instability can lead to things like inadequate nutrition, but what about the trauma of watching a parent struggle to provide a safe and healthy living for them?

For an individual who can afford to pay the initial citation, the experience might have been inconsequential. However, these little fines and fees aren’t so little to the indigent.