Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay

28 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2019 Last revised: 24 May 2019

See all articles by Meghan M. O'Neil

Meghan M. O'Neil

University of Michigan Law School; University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Institute for Social Research

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School

Date Written: March 1, 2019

Abstract

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 determine a litigant’s ability to pay. The result has been a seat-of-the-pants approach that is inefficient and inaccurate, and, as a consequence, very socially costly. Fortunately, online platform technology presents a promising avenue for reform. In particular, platform technology offers the potential to increase litigant access, reduce costs, and ensure consistent and fair treatment—all of which should lead to more accurate sanctions. We use interviews, surveys, and case-level data to evaluate and discuss the experiences of six courts that recently adopted an online ability-to-pay assessment tool that streamlines and standardizes ability-to-pay determinations. Our findings suggest that the online tool improves accuracy and therefore the effectiveness of fines as punishments, and so it may make the use of fines as sanctions more socially attractive.

Keywords: ability to pay, poverty, alternative sanctions, technology, access to justice, courts, platform, decision making

JEL Classification: K4, O33, O35, I3

Suggested Citation

O'Neil, Meghan and Prescott, J.J., Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability to Pay (March 1, 2019). Law and Contemporary Problems, Vol. 82, No. 1, 2019; U of Michigan Law & Econ Research Paper No. 19-003; U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 636. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3353758

Meghan O'Neil (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

University of Michigan at Ann Arbor - Institute for Social Research ( email )

426 Thompson St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
United States

J.J. Prescott

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

3170 South Hall
701 S. State St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
United States
734-763-2326 (Phone)

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