Matterhorn founder and University of Michigan Professor of Law J.J. Prescott will speak on Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay Fines in May at the University of Haifa.
J.J. Prescott and Meghan M. O’Neil will share research on ability to pay. The session is part of a research workshop of the Israel Science Foundation: Suspended Sentences and Intermediate Sanctions. The workshop will take place May 14-16,2018 at the University of Haifa.
Ability-to-pay determinations are essential when governments use money-based alternative sanctions, like fines, to enforce laws. One longstanding difficulty in the U.S. has been the extreme lack of guidance on how courts are to lawfully determine a litigant’s ability to pay. The consequence has been a seat-of-the-pants approach that is inefficient, inconsistent, unpredictable, and susceptible to bias. Fortunately, technology presents a promising avenue for reform. In particular, online ability-to-pay assessment tools offer at least the potential to increase litigant access, reduce costs, and ensure consistent and fair treatment. In this paper, we use mixed methods (e.g., interviews, surveys, data analysis) to evaluate the experiences of six courts that recently adopted an online ability-to-pay assessment tool for use in areas with above-average poverty rates. The online tool the courts adopted streamlines and standardizes determinations and seeks to make the use of fines as sanctions more effective and less biased. Our results indicate that such tools offer a highly efficient, time-saving mechanism for litigants to coordinate with courts to resolve outstanding alternative sanctions without having to face the barriers of taking the time off of work, finding childcare or otherwise spending a day in court. We find that these tools save courts time and money and improve safety by reducing the number of people in courts. Ability-to-pay software also has the unexpected outcome of resolving warrants and doing so rapidly. We conclude with suggestions for increasing low user take-up. Based upon our preliminary findings, we expect more robust take-up would further mitigate bias, reduce court costs, improve time to resolving cases and ultimately reduce incarceration rates for low-income litigants. One implication of our research is that ability-to-comply assessment technology will make alternative sanctions more socially attractive.
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