Ability-to-pay determinations are essential when governments use money-based alternative sanctions, like fines, to enforce laws. One longstanding difficulty in the U.S. has been the extreme lack of guidance on how courts are to determine a litigant’s ability to pay. The result has been a seat-of-the-pants approach that is inefficient and inaccurate, and, as a consequence, very socially costly. Fortunately, online platform technology presents a promising avenue for reform. In particular, platform technology offers the potential to increase litigant access, reduce costs, and ensure consistent and fair treatment—all of which should lead to more accurate sanctions. We use interviews, surveys, and case-level data to evaluate and discuss the experiences of six courts that recently adopted an online ability-to-pay assessment tool that streamlines and standardizes ability-to-pay determinations. Our findings suggest that the online tool improves accuracy and therefore the effectiveness of fines as punishments, and so it may make the use of fines as sanctions more socially attractive.
O'Neill, Meghan M. "Targeting Poverty in the Courts: Improving the Measurement of Ability-to-Pay Fines." J.J. Prescott, co-author. Law & Contemp. Probs. 82, no. 1 (2019): 199-226.