Poverty Penalties as Human Rights Problems

Fines and other financial sanctions are frequently imposed by criminal justice systems around the world. Yet they also raise grave concerns about economic discrimination. Unless they are perfectly scaled to defendants’ financial circumstances, they will penalize poor persons far more than rich ones—and poor defendants’ inability to pay can lead to further penalties like imprisonment or additional financial sanctions. These “poverty penalties” have received attention in domestic jurisdictions but are understudied as a global phenomenon. This Article takes up this issue and makes three contributions. First, it demonstrates that poverty penalties are prevalent in criminal justice systems around the world. Second, it shows how poverty penalties came to be overlooked in international human rights law and describes how this is starting to change. Third, the Article makes the normative case for addressing poverty penalties within human rights law and offers suggestions for how this can be achieved.

Citation: Galbraith, J., AlMarri, L., Bhati, L., Brooks, R., Green, Z., Hu, M., & Irshaidat, N. (2023). Poverty Penalties as Human Rights ProblemsAmerican Journal of International Law, 117(3), 397-440. doi:10.1017/ajil.2023.25

Year: 2023
Resource Type:
Journal Article
Courts Systems
Fees and Fines
Human Rights
Petty Offences
Latin America & the Caribbean
Middle East
North America
People Groups:
People experiencing Poverty
Law Reform