Report equips advocates to work together to tackle challenges of Criminal Justice Debt

Harvard Law School’s Criminal Justice Policy Program and the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) have released Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Comprehensive Project for Reform, a collaborative project that focuses on the financial costs of the criminal justice system. The harms of excessive fines and fees can take a devastating toll on individuals and their families, as well as on society more broadly, according to the report. These harms disproportionately affect the poor and people of color.

The aim of the initiative is to equip criminal justice advocates and civil justice advocates—including those who work on issues of consumer rights, civil rights, and poverty law—to work together to meet the urgent challenges posed by criminal justice debt.

“Over the last several years, there has been incredible momentum to fix our legal system’s approach to imposing fees and fines, which too often creates a two-tiered system of criminal justice that disproportionately harms poor people and communities of color” said Larry Schwartztol, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Program. “The challenge for advocates is to translate that momentum into effective, durable systemic reform. Confronting Criminal Justice Debt aims to guide policymakers and advocates in achieving those reforms. Given the need for broad and creative approaches, we are especially excited to have joined forces with the National Consumer Law Center on this initiative.”

The Confronting Criminal Justice Debt project consists of three parts:

Part 1: Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: The Urgent Need for Comprehensive Reform highlights the problems associated with the increasing costs of criminal justice debt and provides an introduction to this joint initiative.  The report also includes an overview of the topics addressed in the subsequent two parts of this project: the Guide for Litigation and the Guide for Policy Reform.

Part 2: Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Guide for Litigation, developed by NCLC, identifies a range of potential tools based in constitutional, criminal, and consumer protection law that attorneys may use in protecting clients from the harms of criminal justice debt practices. The categories of representation addressed include:

  • Defending against imposition of criminal justice debt;
  • Defending against collection of criminal justice debt, including defending against sanctions or incarceration for nonpayment and seeking remission of debts;
  • Seeking discharge of criminal justice debts through bankruptcy;
  • Protecting assets, wages, and benefits from involuntary collection of criminal justice debts; and
  • Asserting affirmative claims and counterclaims relating to criminal justice debts.

Additionally the Guide for Litigation includes checklists of key factual and legal issues for attorneys to consider when representing clients in criminal justice debt matters, and analysis of the underlying constitutional principles that animate much of the law in this area.

Part 3: Confronting Criminal Justice Debt: A Guide for Policy Reform, developed by CJPP, highlights the different areas of law that spawn harmful practices and outlines a wide array of policy levers for bring about systemic reform.  The guide provides a detailed discussion of policy strategies for (1) addressing conflicts of interest that arises when legal actors rely on revenue generated through court debt; (2) identifying and eliminating practices that act as poverty traps or poverty penalties; (3) structuring ability-to-pay determinations to protect individuals from being punished for non-payment of financial obligations they cannot afford; and (4) ensuring transparency and accountability throughout the system.  For each area, the Guide for Policy Reform provides an overview of the issue as well as reform strategies that might be implemented through legislation, court rules, or executive action.