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Five students in the Yale Law School’s Strategic Advocacy Clinic were recognized with the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking’s Manolo Sanchez Prize for their work aimed at reducing incarceration due to a failure to pay fines. 

The $25,000 award recognizes outstanding achievement by a for-profit or non-profit startup that aims to improve financial justice. The Fines and Fees Freedom Fund, initially conceived of by Alejandra Uría LAW ’23 as part of a final assignment for the YLS Strategic Advocacy Clinic, works to to minimize the number of individuals being incarcerated for failure to pay fines and fees. 

It’s one of those problems that just shouldn’t exist,” Liam Grace-Flood SOM ’22, one of the student developers of the startup, told the News. “The stories are truly wild – people going to jail because they didn’t signal a lane change; people going to court for something they’re wrongly accused of, being exonerated but charged with court fees, and when they can’t afford those, being sent to jail.”

The issue of fine-based incarceration has been recognized by the American Bar Association as part of an ongoing effort to decriminalize poverty.

According to a study by Cornell, approximately 50 percent of adults have seen an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night. Furthermore, people earning less than $25,000 per year are 61 percent more likely to have a family member incarcerated than individuals earning $100,000 per year or more. 

“The more I’ve learned about the criminal legal system in the U.S., the more I’ve seen how policies and procedures reinforce economic and racial disparities,” wrote Caela Murphy SOM ‘23, one of the five student members of Fines and Fees. “Fines and fees are just one example of how the legal system disproportionately penalizes low-income people. Criminal debt can in turn reinforce economic marginalization, including through license revocation, job loss, pressure to take on additional debt, and more.” 

Uría began developing the idea for the Fines and Fees Freedom Fund during her fall 2021 semester with the clinic. During this time, she became aware of the high rates of incarceration for fine-only offenses and theorized that applying a bail fund model would expand what could be done with legal aid to address the issue. Bail funds are charitable organizations that collect money in a pool to help community members meet posted bail amounts. 

Grace-Flood, who joined the clinic as a student in the spring of 2022, explained that he was immediately motivated to make the theory a reality after hearing Uría’s idea. They were joined in the Fall of 2022 by Murphy, Elena Sokoloski LAW ’25 and Chloé Medina LAW ’25. 

“Across four different legal internships and three distinct clinics representing the interests of the imprisoned and policed, I encountered individuals suffering from the many consequences of insurmountable fines and fees,” Uría wrote. “Many organizations and individual activists have fought tirelessly for decades to put an end to unjust fines and fees. I wanted to facilitate immediate relief to those at risk of incarceration for unpaid debt while we await such systemic change.”

The project has involved collaboration not only across different Yale University schools, but also outside of Yale. Sokoloski explained that in a class called “Law, Order, and Algorithms,” the team partnered with students at the Harvard Kennedy School who had developed a prototype tool to determine whether an individual is eligible for a fee waiver based on publicly available court records. 

Sokoloski described the collaboration as “an amazing exercise in patience and problem-solving” as it pushed team members to involve themselves in understanding both the relevant law and the technical landscape. 

“This work has really shown that no matter what technical or legal skills you bring to a team, everyone needs to be ready to help think about and solve all kinds of problems, even those outside your expertise,” Sokoloski wrote. 

Carceral fees not only impose a financial burden on individuals saddled with them, but often entail losses for the court as well. According to a report by the Brennan Center, courts in some parts of New Mexico spend $1.17 to collect $1.00 in carceral fees. 

Citing this study, Grace-Flood emphasized that the system, which is justified as a way for governments to augment their budgets, often end up backfiring for all parties involved. 

“[Carceral fines and fees] create a vicious cycle ruining people’s lives and making the public system worse,” Grace-Flood wrote. “It might seem obvious that these fines shouldn’t exist. But there are big systemic barriers against progress.”

All five team members share in the hope that this work will remain ongoing and expand in reach in coming years. Sokoloski said that given the delicate nature of their focus, expansion would need to occur at a scale that would still maintain consistent excellence. 

She noted that expansion would be facilitated by volunteer assistance in the form of either donations to the fund — which is channeled directly into paying off people’s fines and fees — or in volunteer research support. 

“As we serve more people and do more work, we uncover more puzzles to solve and problems to address,” Sokoloski wrote. “As we tackle those, we’re building our own theory of change on what it means to both help people who are being hurt by an unfair system today, and create momentum for changing that system tomorrow.”

Tsai CITY was established in 2017.

Ines Chomnalez writes for the University desk covering Yale Law School. She previously wrote for the Arts desk. Ines is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in History and Cognitive Science.