Griffin v. Illinois: Justice Independent of Wealth?

35 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2020 Last revised: 19 Aug 2020

See all articles by Neil L. Sobol

Neil L. Sobol

Texas A&M University School of Law

Date Written: May 26, 2020


More than sixty years ago, Justice Hugo Black warned in Griffin v. Illinois that equal justice cannot exist as long as “the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” While Griffin dealt with the limited issue of the inability of a defendant to pay for an appellate transcript, the Supreme Court and legislatures would subsequently extend Black’s equal justice analysis to cases involving other forms of criminal justice debt assessed at trial, appeal, incarceration, and probation. Despite the promise of these judicial and legislative pronouncements, indigent defendants, relative to defendants with financial resources, are still more likely to face difficulty obtaining adequate representation, more likely to be jailed before trial, more likely to plead guilty to avoid continued incarceration, more likely to face difficulty with fees assessed during incarceration, more likely to face continued monetary charges while on probation or parole, and more likely to face incarceration based on inability to pay criminal justice debt. The current two-tiered justice system reflects the concerns expressed by Bryan Stevenson “that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is injustice.”

This Article describes how the promise of equal justice, as developed in Griffin and extended by the Supreme Court, has gone largely unfulfilled in modern society. It also presents an overview of some reforms and recommendations to help the system restore Justice Hugo’s Black concept of equal justice and address Bryan Stevenson’s concerns over the injustice of poverty.

Keywords: Griffin v Illinois, Justice Hugo Black, criminal law, social justice, collateral consequences, equal protection, equal justice, debtors' prisons, criminal justice debt, fines, fees, bail, Bryan Stevenson, collateral consequences, poverty penalties, poverty law, private prison industry

JEL Classification: D18, D63, I30, I31, I32, I39, J70, J71, J78, K14, K40, K42

Suggested Citation

Sobol, Neil, Griffin v. Illinois: Justice Independent of Wealth? (May 26, 2020). Stetson Law Review, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2020, Texas A&M University School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-11, Available at SSRN:

Neil Sobol (Contact Author)

Texas A&M University School of Law ( email )

1515 Commerce St.
Fort Worth, TX 76102
United States
8172124055 (Phone)

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