Connecticut needs reforms to decriminalize poverty
Michael Brown would have turned 25 this month. His death at 18 sparked a nationwide uproar and made his hometown of Ferguson, Mississippi a synonym for racist and abusive police. When the Justice Department investigated Ferguson’s law enforcement practices, it discovered a predatory system that was deliberately using criminal fines and fees to extract wealth from troubled black residents.
Ferguson’s predatory intentions were extreme. But in other ways, his approach to fines and fees was emblematic of how states and cities across the country deal with low-level offenses.
Connecticut is far from an exception.
Over the past year, my organization, the National Center for Access to Justice, has studied the laws and policies of each U.S. state to compare how they use fines and fees to punish minor offenses. . Our work has been built around a set of concrete political expectations which we regard as the minimum elements of any rights-respecting approach to fines and costs. Almost all of them are already on the books in at least a few states.
Among our most surprising finds, Connecticut ranks near the bottom of the pack. This, even though Connecticut is performing relatively well on our broader access to civil justice measures.
Like all states in the United States, Connecticut uses fines to punish a wide variety of offenses and violations. From misdemeanors to traffic violations, these are transgressions that governments want to deter and punish even if they are not serious enough to warrant jail time.
States and municipalities tend to impose these penalties without regard to a person’s financial situation. And yet, the same fine that amounts to a slap on the wrist for one person can prevent another from paying their rent. The result is that many people find themselves drowned in legal debts that turn their lives upside down even though they are guilty of very minor offenses.
To make matters worse, every state, including Connecticut, has started charging people fees for their unintentional “use” of the court system. For people who are struggling to make ends meet, this can make a bad situation hopeless.
The coup de grace is that when people are truly unable to pay a fine or a fee, the system often punishes them as if they refused to comply. In Connecticut and many other states, failure to pay a fine can result in arrest, incarceration, and loss of the right to drive and even vote.
Connecticut has done worse on our Index of fines and costs than all but six of the states – tied with Florida and far behind all of its immediate neighbors.
The Florida legislature sparked a storm of criticism nationwide ahead of our last election when it banned formerly incarcerated people from voting if they had unpaid court debts. The move was condemned as a shameless racist measure aimed at reducing the number of black voters. Connecticut, with much less fanfare, is the only state in the Northeast region to adopt this same barbaric practice.
The good news is that there are some easy ways Connecticut can do better right now.
State legislators are considering Senate Bill 5, which would, among other things, put an end to the suspension of voting rights on the basis of fines and unpaid costs. They should pass it.
Lawmakers also tabled Senate Bill 597, which could mitigate, but unfortunately not abolish, the suspension of driving licenses for non-payment of traffic fines. This harsh and self-defeating practice prevents people from getting to work and earning the money they need to pay off their debts.
In the longer term, Connecticut should adopt new policies to make monetary penalties proportional to what a person can actually afford to pay, to reduce foreclosure fees, and to ensure that no one is locked up for “not having” paid a fine that he simply cannot afford. There is little need to reinvent the wheel here. Connecticut could make real progress just by looking at what other states – including its own neighbors – are already doing better.
Last July, just two months after George Floyd’s murder, Governor Ned Lamont signed legislation to make Connecticut police more accountable. At the time, he was talking about a larger need to tackle what He called “The systemic discrimination that exists within our police and criminal justice systems”.
He was right. In the final days of this legislative session and into the next, he is expected to call on lawmakers to help the state move towards a fairer approach to fines and fees.
The road to reform in Connecticut may be long, but the right first steps are yet to come.
Chris Albin-Lackey is the legal and policy director of the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School.
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