economics of the justice system

Understanding the role of economics within the criminal justice system can be complex. It is woven throughout the system. Money can determine one's experience in the criminal justice system, from where a prisoner is incarcerated to what sort of sentence an individual receives. This section will explore key economic issues within the justice system and offer solutions for change.

While there are several factors that determine what one’s path through the criminal justice system looks like, one major contributor is economic stability.  Ability, or lack thereof, to pay for fines, bail, court fees, and a lawyer, can not only send someone to jail but can alter their life.

For example, if a person with a low-income background and a tight budget is issued a $170 parking fee or speeding ticket, they may not be able to afford to pay the fee within the time allotted, so interest accrues.  Soon $170 turns into $200, $200 turns into $300, and so on. The person is now in debt to the court for failure to pay fees. In some cases, unpaid fines can send people to jail for a few days.  According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “When people don’t pay and fail to respond to a summons, a district judge — a member of the minor judiciary — can issue a warrant for their arrest.”

The district judge’s job is to determine who can and cannot afford to pay the fees and the interests. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, the “system for meting out jail stays over unpaid court fines is wildly inconsistent among the state’s 67 counties and varies from one district judge to another.”

Even if the person is sent to jail for a few days, a record of incarceration can make it very difficult for someone to find employment in the future.


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