Injustice Under Law: Perpetuating and Criminalizing Poverty Through The Courts


Nationally, 60 percent of jail populations comprise pretrial defendants.

The ability to hire an attorney in either a civil or criminal proceeding can result in an experience that is procedurally and substantively different than that of someone who is poor. This essay describes how poverty is enforced in the justice system through bail, fines and fees, and access to counsel in civil cases, and highlights reform efforts that have taken place across the country. The article also provides recommendations for ending the criminalization of poverty.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings: 

  • Most pretrial defendants detained are for nonviolent offenses, are people of color, and are overwhelmingly poor. 
  • The imposition of bail on defendants that cannot afford it keeps people in jail and subjects them to collateral consequences. 
  • In 1966 the federal Bail Reform Act mandated that judges ‘may not impose a financial condition that results in the pretrial detention of the person’; not a single state has adopted comparable statutes to their statutes.
  • Excluding the cost of adjudication, public defenders, prosecutors, or police, from 1979 to 2013, state and local corrections expenditures increased from $17 billion to $71 billion – a 324 percent increase.
  • Many jurisdictions automatically suspend a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay the outstanding debt without a hearing or the ability to obtain one after the suspension.
  • Structural, economic, and epistemological barriers limit access to justice for low and middle-income people.


  • Courts should focus on what serves litigants rather than judges and lawyers to restore people’s faith in the justice system.
  • Fund courts through general revenue rather than fines and fees.
  • Public interest groups and attorneys should develop and advance arguments to end the punishment of people for their poverty and litigate against unlawful practices. 
Judge Lisa Foster
Georgia State University Law Review