‘Poverty penalties’ pose human rights concerns

Criminal fines and fees disproportionately affect poor individuals and people in vulnerable groups, write Penn Carey Law professor Jean Galbraith and students.

A new paper titled “Poverty Penalties as Human Rights Problems” by Jean Galbraith, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and co-authors has been published in the American Journal of International Law.

Jean Galbraith (third from right) and six others standing on a staircase.
Law professor Jean Galbraith (third from right) and co-authors of a new paper titled “Poverty Penalties as Human Rights Problems.” (Image: Courtesy of Penn Carey Law)

The research focuses on financial sanctions imposed by criminal justice systems around the world. It uplifts “poverty penalties”—monetary sanctions and related consequences that disproportionately burden low-income people—as an urgent yet understudied international human rights issue.

Over the last decade, financial sanctions like fines and fees have received increased attention in the United States. In “Poverty Penalties,” the authors study these issues as a global phenomenon that disproportionately affects poor individuals and people in vulnerable groups. These pervasive practices often have devastating consequences for those living in poverty.

“In many countries, if you can’t afford to pay your fine, then the consequence is that you go to jail,” says Galbraith. “This is an incredibly harsh rule—and unless a fine is perfectly scaled to a person’s finances, it means that low-income people are penalized far more in practice than are high-income people. But somehow this issue has flown under the radar of international human rights law.”

The authors cite the global prevalence of poverty penalties, as well as variation in both their imposition and downstream consequences of nonpayment. Countries vary in their ability to effectively scale financial penalties to financial circumstances, they write. Countries also vary in how they respond to failure to pay fines, with some turning immediately to imprisonment and others using mechanisms like late fees, surcharges, forfeiture of property, or the loss of other rights or privileges.

The trend, however, is one in which countries deploy poverty penalties with cascading consequences that place disparate financial burdens on lower-income people. The paper highlights how poverty penalties also frequently cause disproportionate harm to populations that are already vulnerable for reasons of race, religion, gender, and disability.

Co-authors of the paper are Latifa AlMarri, Lisha Bhati, Rheem Brooks , Zachary Green, Margo Hu, and Noor Irshaidat.

Read more at Penn Carey Law.