Category Archives: Criminalization of Poverty

New Article: “Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay”

New Article: Beth A. Colgan, Graduating Economic Sanctions According to Ability to Pay, 53 Iowa L. Rev. 103 (2017). Abstract below:

There is growing recognition that economic sanctions — fines, surcharges, fees, and restitution — are routinely imposed at rates many people have no meaningful ability to pay, which can exacerbate financial instability and lead to the perception that economic sanctions are unfairly punitive to people of limited means. Concerns triggered primarily by highly punitive tactics, including incarceration and long-term probation of low-income debtors for the failure to pay, have led to increasing calls for reform. While much attention is now being paid to the back-end of the system, and particularly limitations on punitive responses for the failure to pay due to poverty, this Article considers the problem from the front-end. In particular, this Article focuses on a potential reform with increasing bipartisan support: the graduation of economic sanctions according to a person’s financial circumstances.

To that end, this Article explores several key considerations essential to designing a system of graduation, relying heavily on a largely-forgotten experiment in seven geographically, demographically, and politically diverse jurisdictions in the United States with the “day-fine.” A day-fine is calculated using a penalty unit assigned based on the seriousness of the offense of conviction. The penalty unit is then multiplied by the defendant’s adjusted daily income to determine the day-fine amount. The result is an economic sanction adjusted to offense seriousness and simultaneously graduated to the defendant’s financial condition. This Article mines the historical record of the American day-fines experiments — complemented by recent interviews with people involved in the design and implementation of the projects and experiences with means-adjustment in the consumer bankruptcy, tax, and public benefits contexts — for lessons on the design of graduating economic sanctions. What emerges from this review is promising evidence that a properly designed and implemented system for graduation is consistent with efficient court administration, revenue generation, and equality in sentencing.

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New Op-Ed: “Sessions Says to Courts: Go Ahead, Jail People Because They’re Poor”

New Op-Ed: Chiraag Bains, Sessions Says to Courts: Go Ahead, Jail People Because They’re Poor, N.Y. Times, Dec. 28, 2017.

New Article: “Unmarked? Criminal Record Clearing and Employment Outcomes”

New Article: Jeffery Selbin, Justin McCrary & Joshua Epstein, Unmarked? Criminal Record Clearing and Employment Outcomes, 108 J. Criminal L. & Criminology (2017). Abstract below:

An estimated one in three American adults has a criminal record. While some records are for serious offenses, most are for arrests or relatively low-level misdemeanors. In an era of heightened security concerns, easily available data and increased criminal background checks, these records act as a substantial barrier to gainful employment and other opportunities. Harvard sociologist Devah Pager describes people with criminal records as “marked” with a negative job credential.

In response to this problem, lawyers have launched unmarking programs to help people take advantage of legal record clearing remedies. We study a random sample of participants in one such program to analyze the impact of the record clearing intervention on employment outcomes. Using methods to control for selection bias and the effects of changes in the economy in our data, we find evidence that: (1) the record clearing intervention boosts participants’ employment rates and average real earnings, and (2) people seek record clearing remedies after a period of suppressed earnings.

More research needs to be done to understand the durability of the positive impact and its effects in different local settings and labor markets, but these findings suggest that the record clearing intervention makes a meaningful difference in employment outcomes for people with criminal records. The findings also suggest the importance of early intervention to increase opportunities for people with criminal records. Such interventions might include more legal services, but they might also include record clearing by operation of law or another mechanism that does not put the onus of unmarking on the person with a criminal record.

News Coverage: “No mercy for judges who show mercy”

News Coverage: Joseph Neff, No mercy for judges who show mercy, ABA Journal, Dec. 4, 2017.

News Coverage: “Public Defenders Fight Back Against Budget Cuts, Growing Caseloads”

News Coverage: Teresa Wiltz, Public Defenders Fight Back Against Budget Cuts, Growing Caseloads, PEW Charitable Trusts, Nov. 21, 2017.

New Op-Ed / Book Review: “Pushing Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty” (highlighting Peter Edelman’s new book, Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America (The New Press 2017))

not_a_crime_to_be_poor_finalNew Op-Ed / Book Review: Ezra Rosser, Pushing Back Against the Criminalization of Poverty, CounterPunch, Nov. 24, 2017 (highlighting Peter Edelman’s new book, Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America (The New Press 2017))

Congrats to Peter Edelman on this book. As I hope my op-ed/review makes clear, this is a great book and worth both reading and assigning!

Op-Ed: “Mississippi judge resigns after barring mother from seeing newborn because of unpaid court fees”

Radley Balko, Mississippi judge resigns after barring mother from seeing newborn because of unpaid court fees, Washington Post, October 26, 2017. [“The mother has been forbidden from any contact with her newborn for 14 of the 18 months the child has been alive.”]

New Article: “Seizing Family Homes from the Innocent: Can the Eighth Amendment Protect Minorities and the Poor from Excessive Punishment in Civil Forfeiture?”

Rulli, Louis, Seizing Family Homes from the Innocent: Can the Eighth Amendment Protect Minorities and the Poor from Excessive Punishment in Civil Forfeiture? (2017). University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law, Vol. 19, p. 1483, 2017; U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-48. [Abstract below]

Civil forfeiture laws permit the government to seize and forfeit private property that has allegedly facilitated a crime without ever charging the owner with any criminal offense. The government extracts payment in kind — property — and gives nothing to the owner in return, based upon a legal fiction that the property has done wrong. As such, the government’s taking of property through civil forfeiture is punitive in nature and constrained by the Eighth Amendment’s Excessive Fines Clause, which is intended to curb abusive punishments.

The Supreme Court’s failure to announce a definitive test for determining the constitutional excessiveness of civil forfeiture takings under the Eighth Amendment has led to disagreement among state and federal courts on the proper standard. At the same time, the War on Drugs has resulted in an explosion of civil forfeiture filings against the property of ordinary citizens — many are whom are innocent of any wrongdoing — and therefore there is a profound need for a robust constitutional test that satisfies the Eighth Amendment’s original purposes. This need has grown more urgent because civil forfeiture practices are increasingly plagued by police abuses motivated by self-gain, and recent studies show that civil forfeitures disproportionately affect low-income and minority individuals who are least able to defend their hard-earned property.

This Article documents the aggressive use of civil forfeiture in Pennsylvania and, by way of illustration, presents the plight of elderly, African-American homeowners in Philadelphia who were not charged with any crime and yet faced the loss of their homes because their adult children were arrested for minor drug offenses. In such cases, the Eighth Amendment should play a vital role in preventing excessive punishments. But some courts mistakenly apply a rigid proportionality test, upon prosecutorial urging, that simply compares the market value of the home to the maximum statutory fine for the underlying drug offense. When a home value is shown to be less than the maximum fine, these courts presume the taking to be constitutional. Under such a one-dimensional test, prosecutors routinely win because the cumulative maximum fines for even minor drug offenses almost always exceed the market values of modest, inner-city homes. This cannot be the proper test. Instead, this Article contends that the proper constitutional test for excessiveness must be a searching, fact-intensive inquiry, in which courts are required to balance five essential factors: (1) the relative instrumentality of the property at issue to the predicate offense; (2) the relative culpability of the property owner; (3) the proportionality between the value of the property at issue and the gravity of the predicate offense; (4) the harm (if any) to the community caused by the offending conduct; and (5) the consequences of forfeiture to the property owner.

New Article: “Homelessness and the Impossibility to Obey the Law”

Skolnik, Terry, Homelessness and the Impossibility to Obey the Law,  43 Fordham Urban Law Journal 741 (2016). [Abstract below]

Building on Jeremy Waldron’s work, this article argues that it can be impossible for homeless people to obey the law in certain contexts. This occurs where there are insufficient public resources to allow homeless people to comply with the law, or the homeless lack the capacity or opportunity to obey quality of life rules. This article explores the moral objections to enforcing quality of life rules in such circumstances, how courts view homeless people’s impossibility to obey the law, as well as policy and litigation strategies applicable in such cases.

New Article: “Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures”

Beth A. Colgan, Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures, SSRN, August 15, 2107.  Abstract below:

The use of fines, fees, and forfeitures has expanded significantly in recent years as lawmakers have sought to fund criminal justice systems without raising taxes. Concerns are growing, however, that inadequately designed systems for the use of such economic sanctions have problematic policy outcomes, such as the distortion of criminal justice priorities, exacerbation of financial vulnerability of people living at or near poverty, increased crime, jail overcrowding, and even decreased revenue. In addition, the imposition and collections of fines, fees, and forfeitures in many jurisdictions are arguably unconstitutional, and therefore create the risk of often costly litigation. This chapter provides an overview of those policy and constitutional problems and provides several concrete solutions for reforming the use of fines, fees, and forfeitures.