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Fees and fines have severe impact on the poor

Encounters with the criminal justice system can be particularly devastating for people living in poverty in Maryland. States, counties and cities across the country have developed an increasing reliance on court fines, fees and citations in order to balance their budgets and pay for specific services. Therefore, the use of these kinds of financial penalties can be encouraged by some administrations. Because these punishments are heavily financial in nature, they can have a deeply disproportionate effect on poor residents. Fines that people are unable to pay can escalate into significant debts and even jail time in some cases.

Despite a 1983 Supreme Court ruling that people cannot be jailed for being too poor to pay their fines and fees, versions of the practice continue in localities nationwide. In one state, debt collection for these fees has been outsourced to a private company. The firm charges debtors an additional 30% on top of the already hefty fines, threatening them with arrest if they do not pay. After people are jailed, they are once again billed for their incarceration, creating an inescapable cycle for impoverished people. While people may not have even had criminal charges against them, they may end the process with a criminal record, periods of incarceration and even more extreme marginalization.

As a result, people may lose their homes and their jobs. Many people are unable to drive because their license is suspended; in a number of cases, the suspension is linked to unpaid fees and fines rather than any type of driving danger.

Criminal justice reformers are aiming to reduce this reliance on hefty fees and fines that penalize the poor. In the meantime, people facing even minor criminal charges may work with a criminal defense attorney, aiming to prevent a conviction and the serious consequences that can accompany it.

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