Poverty Penalties as Human Rights Problems


Poverty penalties are a human rights concern due to the chance of imprisonment and the lack of protection against discrimination for vulnerable groups based on race, religion, gender, and disability.

Financial sanctions have led to widespread poverty penalties on low-income and vulnerable populations and are a domestic and international human rights concern. States disproportionately punish poor defendants when fines for minor offenses exceed what poor defendants can pay. As a result, non-payment can trigger additional collection costs, revocations of driver’s licenses, deprivation of political rights, and incarceration. This article describes comparative practices in countries that impose monetary sanctions, the impact of poverty penalties, the lack of international attention, and the need to make poverty penalties a severe human rights concern. 

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Key Findings:

  • There are international variances in how fines are levied; some countries set fines based on fixed fine structures, a minimum and/or maximum fine amount, penalty points, or day fines–the only method that would not be poverty penalties when done properly.
  • Poverty penalties disproportionately oppress members of vulnerable groups; examples include the disproportionate infliction of poverty penalties upon Black and Indigenous communities in the United States, the Roma ethnic community in Europe, and women in New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
  • Sanctions for failure to pay fines or fees include imprisonment, revocation of driver’s licenses, or forfeiture of property.
  • The following countries use imprisonment as a consequence of failure to pay or will convert the amount owed to time in prison: Qatar, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, France, Croatia, Switzerland, Romania, Ghana, Kenya, India, and South Korea.
  • In 1905, the International Penal and Penitentiary Congress was the leading forum for international conversations around criminal justice reform, recommending that fines be fixed proportionately to the fortune of the convicted person.
Jean Galbraith, Latifa AlMarri, Lisha Bhati, Rheem Brooks, Zachary Green, Margo Hu, & Noor Irshaidat
American Journal of International Law