Sharen Ghatan Advocates for Legal Assistance to the Poor

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New insight from the American Civil Liberties Union reveals the faults of America’s debtors’ prisons. Criminal defense attorney, Sharen Ghatan, offers ideas to resolve this national problem.

For many Americans, the concept of prison only conjures up images of hardened criminals who committed severe offenses. However, some low-income citizens are learning that some prisons are also reserved for individuals who were unable to pay small court fees. According to an article from the ACLU, America’s debtors’ prisons are growing at a steady rate as “cash-strapped cities and counties” execute more aggressive measures to collect debts unpaid – no matter how miniscule those amounts initially were. Sharen Ghatan, a California lawyer specializing in criminal defense, says that these actions are a true failure on part of the country’s justice system and hopes that resolutions can be found to stop courts from attacking poor citizens.

The article introduces the severity of these debt collection measures with a few examples of citizens who were incarcerated for their failure to pay small fees that were unaffordable at the time. In the case of one woman, Gina Ray, a mere $179 speeding ticket results in $3,170 in fines and a 40 day sentence in jail. The article also considers Ameen Muqtadir who “was billed nearly $41,000 for two failures to appear in court dating back to 1991 and 1997.”

Attorney, Sharen Ghatan finds these stories “truly ridiculous” and is even more shocked by the article’s statement that there are no solid plans to take down debtors’ prisons, but rather to build more. According to the ACLU these kinds of tactics create a two-tiered justice system where wealthy citizens can easily resolve small fees and poor individuals are punished for not having enough financial resources in the first place. Ghatan comments, “How much lemon juice can you squeeze out of a lemon? The destitute defendant who's jobless and homeless can't afford to buy himself a meal, and yet the court is charging him with thousands of dollars on a failure to appear.”

Not only do these efforts increase fines by an extraordinary percentage, but they also hurt the convicted individual’s chance of finding adequate housing or employment due to an obliterated credit score. However, Sharen Ghatan notes that these people still did commit a crime and did not adhere to a certain sentence or fee.

Instead, learning from the California justice system, she suggests more intensive use of community service sentences as a way for both the government and the criminal to find an agreeable solution. Ghatan explains, “Community labor is defined differently by individual courts but usually consists of actions that include beautification of Cal Trans systems, graffiti removal, beach clean-up and more. These options would allow impoverished defendants to do something productive, make themselves feel better, contribute to the community and resolve their outstanding criminal matters for trivial matters like tickets.”


Sharen Ghatan is a native of Marin County, CA (Northern California). She graduated with a Bachelor's Degree from prestigious UC Berkeley. Subsequently, she attended and ultimately graduated from Whittier Law School in 1999.

She has since worked at New Line Cinema and Motion Picture Association of America. Ms. Ghatan found her passion for the criminal field and has had her own criminal defense firm since 2001.

Ms. Ghatan is a member of the California State Bar, and is licensed to practice before all courts in the state of California. Additionally, in October 2007, Ms. Ghatan became one of the elite attorneys to be licensed to practice before the Supreme Court of the United States. She is quite proud of this honor and hopes to revisit Washington DC with a ground-breaking criminal matter soon.

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Michael McGarety
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