Engraved into the United States Supreme Court Building are the words, "Equal justice under law." For indigent defendants, this maxim is far from true. Indigent defendants experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal justice system because of their lower economic status. People living in poverty are arrested more often, (1) receive lower-quality representation in their cases, (2) and are sentenced more heavily--especially with regard to the imposition of legal financial obligations that they are unable to pay--than wealthier individuals."
In most jurisdictions, criminal law statutes outline a possible sentencing range, and judges decide where the punishment falls within that range. (4) Judges are generally given broad discretion to consider different factors, but some common factors include: criminal history of the defendant level of culpability for the crime, the circumstances of the crime, and whether the defendant shows remorse. (5) This Note argues for the implementation of a policy of including economic status as a factor when imposing a sentence on a defendant, which would act as a counter-balance to practices that discriminate against people in poverty. Part II will discuss how the criminal justice system has a disparate impact on people living in poverty. Part III will discuss the policy proposal and why it is important to equitable justice under the law. Part IV will discuss potential criticisms of the implementation of the policy. Part V will conclude by discussing further research required to properly implement the proposed policy.
II. THE DISPARATE IMPACT OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
A person on the lower rungs of the economic ladder experiences discrimination at every step of her or his encounter with the criminal justice system. (A) People in poverty are more likely to be arrested and enter the system. Two major contributing factors are that (1) impoverished neighborhoods are more heavily policed, and (2) many jurisdictions criminalize certain aspects of poverty. (B) People in poverty also face significant disadvantages at trial. (1) They are more likely to be represented by public defenders, many of whom are underfunded, overloaded, and have less time and resources than private attorneys to devote to each case. (2) Judges have overwhelmingly rejected poverty or a poor upbringing as a whole or partial defense to charges. Lastly, (C) indigent defendants face discrimination in punishments imposed after conviction. (1) Mandatory minimums are imposed more often for crimes that are primarily committed by indigent defendants, and (2) court-imposed fees disproportionately affect defendants experiencing poverty and can lead to longer terms of incarceration.
These three forms of disparate treatment are discretionary; they are not inherent in the system. The bias in the criminal justice system against people living in poverty may be explicit, implicit, or a combination of both. When bias is explicit, the biased individual is aware of their bias and has some measure of control over it. (6) On the other hand, implicit biases operate outside of conscious thought (7) While the nature of the bias is important to attempts to eradicate discrimination, the remedy this...