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Court fees and fines punishing poverty

The accumulation of fines and fees that emerge from the criminal justice system can be particularly damaging to people living in poverty in Texas. Across the country, multiple state, county and city governments have developed a growing dependence on the proceeds of court fines and citations in order to fund their activities. As a result, impoverished people are disproportionately affected as they are far less able to pay these fines. While the original citation issue can be relatively minor, an inability to pay can escalate the issue rapidly. People may find themselves facing the loss of their driver's license or even jail time as a result of being unable to pay fines.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that people cannot be thrown in jail because they are too poor to pay fines. Nevertheless, local jails are filled nationwide with people with no criminal convictions, or even charges in some cases, who are unable to repay their bills. In other cases, people are put on probation and in extended contact with the criminal justice system until they finally pay off all of their nearly unrepayable debts.

As court fees and fines have substituted for taxes to fund local budgets, poor people are suffering. Many criminal justice reform advocates are urging the abolition of cash bail and other policies that primarily serve to affect impoverished and marginalized people. Even prominent judges have joined the call to abolish many of these fines, especially after seeing people lose their jobs and their homes over minor citation costs and the resulting penalties.

Any kind of criminal conviction can have a significant impact on a person's ability to access education, employment and housing in the future. People facing criminal charges may work with a criminal defense attorney to challenge police allegations and aim to prevent a conviction.

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