Connecticut needs reforms to decriminalize poverty
Michael Brown would have turned 25 last month. His death at 18 sparked a nationwide outcry and made his hometown of Ferguson, Mo., synonymous with racist and abusive policing. When the Department of Justice investigated Ferguson’s law enforcement practices, it uncovered a predatory system that deliberately used criminal fines and fees to extract wealth from struggling Black residents.
Ferguson’s predatory intentions were an extreme. But in other ways, its approach to fines and fees was emblematic of how states and cities nationwide handle low-level offenses.
Connecticut is far from an exception.
Over the last year, my organization, the National Center for Access to Justice, studied the laws and policies of every U.S. state to compare how they use fines and fees to punish minor offenses. Our work was built around a set of concrete policy expectations that we see as the minimal elements of any rights-respecting approach to fines and fees. Almost all are already on the books in at least a few states.
Among our most surprising discoveries was that Connecticut ranks near the bottom of the pack. This, even though Connecticut performs relatively well on our broader metrics of access to civil justice.
Like every U.S. state, Connecticut uses fines to punish a vast array of offenses and violations. From misdemeanor crimes to traffic violations, these are transgressions governments want to deter and punish even though they aren’t serious enough to warrant jail time.
States and municipalities tend to impose these punishments 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 someone else from paying their rent. The result is that many people find themselves drowning in court debt that upends their lives even though they are guilty of very minor offenses.
Making matters worse, every state, including Connecticut, has taken to charging people fees for their involuntary “use” of the justice system. For people struggling to make ends meet, this can make a bad situation a hopeless one.
The coup de grace is that when people are genuinely unable to afford a fine or fee, the system often punishes them as though they had refused to comply. In Connecticut and in many other states, failure to pay a fine can mean arrest, incarceration, and the loss of a right to drive and even to vote.
Connecticut performed worse on our Fines and Fees Index than all but six states — on par with Florida and far behind all its immediate neighbors.
Florida’s legislature ignited a firestorm of nationwide criticism in the run-up to our last election when it barred formerly incarcerated people from voting if they had unpaid court debts. The move was condemned as an unabashedly racist move to reduce the number of Black voters. Connecticut, with much less fanfare, is the only state in the Northeast region to embrace this same barbaric practice.
The good news is that there are straightforward ways for Connecticut to do better right now.
State legislators are considering Senate Bill 5, which would, among other things, end the suspension of voting rights based on unpaid fines and fees. They should pass it.
Lawmakers have also tabled Senate Bill 597, which could mitigate — though unfortunately not abolish — the suspension of driver’s licenses for failure to pay traffic-related fines. This harsh and self-defeating practice makes it impossible for people to get to work and earn the money they need to pay down their debts.
In the longer term, Connecticut should enact new policies to make monetary sanctions proportionate to what a person can actually afford to pay, to dial back predatory fees and to make sure no one is locked up for “failing” to pay a fine they simply cannot afford. There’s little need to reinvent the wheel here. Connecticut could make real strides simply by looking to what other states — including its own neighbors — are already doing better.
Last July, just two months after George Floyd’s murder, Gov. Ned Lamont signed legislation to make Connecticut police more accountable. At the time, he spoke of a wider need to tackle what he called “the systemic discrimination that exists within our policing and criminal justice systems.”
He was right. In the waning days of this legislative session and in the next one, he should call on the legislature to help the state move towards a fairer approach to fines and fees.
Connecticut’s road to reform may be a long one, but the right first steps are just ahead.
Chris Albin-Lackey is the legal and policy director at the National Center for Access to Justice at Fordham Law School.
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