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PI Fellow works to end “modern-day debtors’ prison”

March 26, 2018

After the financial crisis of 2008, many local municipalities faced budget shortfalls. To make up that gap, many began to change the way they enforced fines and fees leveled against people in traffic court or in misdemeanor criminal cases. The fines rose dramatically, regardless of whether the people being fined could pay, and payment failure led to either municipalities calling in private debt collectors or courts issuing bench warrants for the arrest and incarceration of those who didn’t pay.

To bring an end to this practice, which has been called “modern-day debtors’ prison,” Carl Snodgrass L’17 has joined the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program as the Debtors’ Prisons Fellow. With the support of a postgraduate fellowship from Penn Law, Snodgrass is working jointly on efforts to work with legislators to change these policies, and when those efforts fail, to file lawsuits on behalf of those impacted by these practices.

“The practice is completely unconstitutional,” said Snodgrass, “but it has nonetheless become standard operating procedure in jurisdictions all around the country.”

“Carl is working at the intersection of advocacy, legislation, and litigation to help those who are burdened by this incredibly punitive practice,” said Neta Borshansky, Associate Director of Public Service Careers and Director of Government Programs. “His work as a postgraduate fellow shows how public interest lawyering can make an impact on an individual and a systemic level.”

At the ACLU’s New York office, Snodgrass regularly conducts research and engages in legal writing, he explained. He writes response briefs (often in response to county attorneys looking to summarily dismiss the ACLU’s lawsuits) and conducts investigations on topics such as drivers’ license suspensions for nonpayment of court-related fees. He also has the opportunity to travel to communities affected by aggressive fines and fees and interact with people harmed by these policies.

Snodgrass is from Portland, Oregon, and after he graduated from Lewis & Clark College, he worked for New York City, investigating police misconduct. The job “really opened up [his] eyes,” he said, particularly when learning about the regular violations of citizens’ constitutional rights through the city’s stop-and-frisk program.

After working at several nonprofits, he came to Penn Law and pursued coursework that supported his interest in civil rights, such as Constitutional Litigation, taught by Professor Seth Kreimer; Black Lives Matter in Historical Perspective, taught by Professor Sophia Lee; and Advanced Torts, taught by Professor Regina Austin. During the summer of his 2L year, he worked at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

“I always looked at the ACLU as the place I’d like to be,” said Snodgrass. “The reason I went to law school was to do the kind of impact litigation that the ACLU does.”

Penn Law is committed to supporting students as they launch careers in the public interest. The Law School offers postgraduate fellowships to financially support graduates who pursue work at public interest organizations, government agencies, and NGOs.