Do we need a WebMD to teach people about the legal system?

Solving a problem like debtors' prisons may be too big for the Internet.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Published Feb 11, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 1:52 pm CDT

Ferguson, Mo., is in the news once again with a lawsuit charging the city—along with Jennings, Mo.—of effectively enabling debtors’ prisons through its municipal court policies. The fact that debtors’ prisons still exist in the United States after being outlawed in the mid-19th century may come as a surprise, but in fact, they’re a rising issue in low-income minority communities. Can the Web help fix the problem? Only if the financial and legal advice offered online is accurate and helpful—which isn’t necessarily the case.

Can the Web help fix the problem?

The city, along with many others in the United States, does a tidy business in collecting court fees, many of which surround traffic citations. Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue that municipal courts are effectively criminalizing poverty, exacerbating the social problems faced by minority groups in the United States and making it difficult to break the cycle of poverty. Ferguson, Mo., isn’t the only city that does it, but it along with other key violators nationwide was chosen as a target because its practices are particularly deplorable.

Civil rights advocates are seeing a growing pattern across the United States. It starts with the fact that low-income people are more likely to drive with expired registration tags, no insurance, and outdated driver’s licenses. When they’re pulled over by police officers, they can be cited for these issues along with other potential infractions like speeding or so-called “fix it tickets” for issues like blown headlights—car maintenance is another thing people can’t afford on minimal incomes.

For people with funds, such tickets can be resolved relatively readily, though the cost of a ticket might be an annoyance. Low-income people, however, may not be able to afford costly citations, especially when a municipal court tacks on a stack of “court fees” that can amount to hundreds of dollars. People are ordered to report to court to work out a payment plan, and if they fail to appear or pay, the judge issues a warrant for their arrest.

According to NPR, “In 2013, Ferguson, a city with a population of 21,000, issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants for unpaid traffic violations and other minor offenses.” Some of those warrants were aimed at people from outside the city limits, but that still doesn’t explain the astronomically large number of people arrested and jailed for failing to pay their debts—an almost textbook example of debtors’ prison. And once they arrive at the jail, the situation gets even worse, as the building features appalling conditions. Even the Supreme Court can’t seem to stop the tide of jailing people for unpaid debts across the U.S.

Like other cities engaging in this practice, Ferguson rakes in substantial sums from violations.

Like other cities engaging in this practice, Ferguson, Mo., rakes in substantial sums from violations themselves, along with court fees. At times, these funds exceed monies collected from property taxes and other sources of revenue—and small relatively small communities like this one can account for an outsized amount of traffic revenues statewide, sharply illustrating the concerns of advocacy groups.

Beyond addressing the structural social problems that contribute to the issue—including low minimum wage, racial discrimination, profiling, and problems with court practices—figuring out how to help people advocate for themselves within the court system is critical. The instinctive reaction, especially among those who see tech as an ultimate solution to all social problems, might be to use the Internet as a resource. Numerous websites provide education and tools for people facing a variety of issues, and self-help for legal problems might seem like a natural extension.

But there are a number of problems with using the Web as a substitute for trained attorneys, free legal clinics, and other real-world services that empower people with self-advocacy tools. Those problems shouldn’t just give people room for pause; they’re persuasive arguments against using the Web as a legal tool. In a world where the practice of law is tightly regulated, the Internet should be no different.

On the defense side, it’s tempting to point to companies like NOLO, venerable legal resources that started out with books on a variety of subjects and have graduated to offering tools online. The company provides manuals, forms, and advice on a number of basic legal matters like filing for name changes or divorces. However, its materials are also rigidly reviewed, backed by legal consultants, and carefully fact-checked to ensure that they’re accurate.

In a world where the practice of law is tightly regulated, the Internet should be no different.

That’s something that isn’t necessarily available online, as anyone has the ability to start and maintain a website. Which presents a significant danger, because people seeking legal information and resources might not have the skills needed to verify and critically read information. Such skills might feel like second nature to highly educated people—like the college graduates who advocate for the Web as an educational tool—but in a city where less than 80 percent of students graduate high school, it’s not that simple.

Being able to assess information to determine if it’s accurate requires skills. People need to be able to determine if a source is reliable and to examine the sources used to create compendiums of information. They also need to consider the qualifications of a person providing advice, and they need to be able to confirm those qualifications. How many users would know how to look up an attorney’s standing with the state bar, for example? The difference between legitimate attorneys working with civil rights organizations to provide online references and an unreliable and potentially even exploitative source of information might seem obvious to educated readers, but not necessarily to those who haven’t been taught critical thinking skills.

Bad legal advice could create problems in court, and, even worse, exploitative sites might actively get poor people desperate for information in trouble. Some charge for their services and advice, or offer to file documents on behalf of people in legal trouble, even when they’re not allowed to perform such services. People can end up deeper in debt as they’re still left with the original fine and court fees, along with the costs incurred on the website they turned to for help.

Before people can use the Web as a tool to fight back, they need to understand how the Web works, and how to evaluate the huge fount of information it offers. The Internet is like a firehose when it comes to information, and those who don’t have the ability to sift through the incredibly large amount of data online can end up ensnared in problems even worse than they had before.

Tech isn’t the answer: It could become part of the problem.

At the same time that legal resources and civil rights groups try to provide comprehensive and helpful information along with referrals to attorneys, legal clinics, and other resources, a panoply of unhelpful websites has mushroomed. Sifting through them to find information that’s both useful and accurate can be a nightmare for anyone, but it’s even worse for people who are poor and struggling. 

In this case, tech isn’t the answer: It could become part of the problem.

Photo via JoshuaDavisPhotography/Flickr (CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 11, 2015, 11:00 am CST