On this week’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled the issue of criminal justice debt, providing an in-depth look at how relatively small violations can have disastrous effects on the lives of low-income people. He explained how fines and fees arising from traffic and other low-level offenses, often used as a way to fund local governments without raising taxes, can trap those unable to pay in a vicious cycle of debt. Failure to pay a fine can lead to additional surcharges and fees, the suspension of one’s driver’s license, or even jail time in some cases.
Furthermore, the loss of a driver’s license can have particularly dire consequences, since most Americans drive to work. The segment cited a survey which found that 64 percent of low-income drivers in New Jersey who had their license suspended lost their jobs as a result. As Oliver aptly summarized this alarming scenario, “You need them to pay their fine, but you’re taking away their means of paying it.”
As The PBEye has previously reported, pro bono lawyers have a critical role to play in fixing an unjust system that increasingly criminalizes poverty and sends the poorest among us to jail for their inability to pay fines. Our friend Lisa Borden, at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz*†, wrote a compelling blog post that shines a spotlight on this troubling issue and urges lawyers to get involved, as her firm has. Pro bono lawyers can have an impact by representing individuals, one client at a time, and by advocating for systemic reform.
Looking for a new pro bono project? This might be a meaningful place to start. Let’s not just laugh; let’s be inspired to action.
* denotes a Signatory to the Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge®
† denotes a Member of the Law Firm Pro Bono Project