Dougherty Tobias Iszard, Northern Virginia Law, P.C.

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Fines and fees punish people in poverty

People in poverty in Virginia dealing with the criminal justice system may find themselves further mired in economic disadvantage as a result. Many policies adopted by state and local officials across the country tend to systematically impact poor and marginalized people far more significantly than those of greater means. In particular, many areas rely on court fees and fines to balance the municipal budget. When people cannot pay these fees, the escalating consequences can severely affect people's lives. For example, people face even more costly fees, a damaged credit score or even jail time as a result.

In local jails across the country, people are serving time without having been convicted of a crime. Instead, they have overdue fines or suspended driver's licenses due to unpaid citations. This is one reason why many social justice advocates are working to change laws that disproportionately affect poor Americans. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that people could not be jailed for being too poor to pay court fees, but versions of the practice continue in many localities. In some cases, for-profit companies are also involved in the mix. In Oklahoma, counties refer debt collection to a for-profit company that threatens people with arrest if they cannot pay.

People are often jailed as a result; many are then assessed further fees to pay for their incarceration. For poor people, this outcome only mires them further in poverty and prevents them from escaping a difficult situation. People lose their jobs as a result of these arrests and become even less able to pay the escalating fines.

A criminal conviction can have a serious impact on a person's life, including the ability to access jobs, education and housing. People facing criminal charges may work with a criminal defense attorney in an attempt to resolve their case and avoid a conviction.

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