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Reformers fighting court fines and fees that criminalize poverty

Coming into contact with the Texas criminal justice system could lead to long-term financial difficulty. Court fees and fines often impose burdensome debts that result in incarceration, probation and job loss. A group formed in 2016 called the Civil Rights Corps calls the practice of fining poor defendants for minor crimes or infractions "user-funded justice."

Many municipalities across the nation have turned to generating revenue through their courts instead of raising taxes. In some situations, courts turn defendants' debts for fines and jailing or probation fees over to third-party for-profit companies that add their services charges onto debts that the people already cannot pay. Failure to pay court fines often sends offenders to jail, which adds to their debts and typically causes them to lose their jobs.

Multiple legal groups and nonprofit organizations in addition to Civil Rights Corp have been battling these practices that add to the financial challenges of low-income people. Fining poor people for minor crimes sometimes even costs local governments extra money instead of generating the desired revenue. According to the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, one major city collected $2.8 million in fines but spent $5.4 million annually to jail those people unable to their pay fines.

In 1983, the Supreme Court decided that jailing people unable to pay court fines was unconstitutional. Despite this, a person accused of crimes might face insurmountable fees and fines if convicted. Legal counsel could help a defendant form a criminal defense instead of yielding to accusations. The lawyer might convince a prosecutor to drop or reduce charges. This could protect the client from a criminal record and harsh penalties that could unravel financial security.

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