DOJ: Owing Court Fines Should Not Be A Jailable Offense

According to the DOJ, court fines are should not be a jailable offense. The new guidelines, which were announced Monday, were created to protect the indigent — who simply do not have the financial resources to cover the hefty fines.

Courts throughout the nation have used the threat of license suspensions, and even jail, to encourage defendants to pay their outstanding court costs and fines. However, the practice may be unconstitutional.

The issue was brought to light during a United States Department of Justice investigation into discriminatory practices in the Ferguson, Missouri, city court and police department. During their probe, the DOJ discovered defendants in the Ferguson court system were jailed for failure to pay fines.

NBC News reports a deeper investigation revealed the practice is common in numerous other courts throughout the United States.

A letter, penned by Justice Department officials Lisa Foster and Vanita Gupta, suggests these courts are violating federal law. In addition to “opening the door to constitutional challenges,” the practice often traps indigent defendants in a vicious “cycle of escalating debt, unnecessary incarceration, and unemployment.”

According to Foster and Gupta, jails are meant to punish criminals and to promote public safety. However, jailing defendants for owing a debt does neither.

“… these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents…”

First and foremost, the DOJ’s court fine guidelines state “arrest warrants and license suspensions shouldn’t be used routinely as a way to coerce payment of court debt.” Instead, the courts should first determine whether non-payment is due to indigence or a willful refusal to pay.

For those who are determined to be indigent, the DOJ said “courts must consider alternatives to incarceration.”

According to the DOJ, court fines should be paid whenever possible — as the outstanding debt puts a financial strain on the court system. However, as reported by CNN, the courts must make an effort to determine whether defendants are indigent and avoid jailing debtors who simply cannot pay their court costs and fines.

The DOJ also addressed bonds, which “shouldn’t cause poor defendants from remaining in jail solely because they can’t afford to pay for release.”

Although the task is monumental, the DOJ pledged $2.5 million in grants to help state and local courts develop ways to collect debt without violating defendants’ constitutional rights.

United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the practice of jailing debtors is simply “unacceptable.”

“[T]he justice system [turns] into a for-profit enterprise at the expense of public safety. Too many of our citizens are simply in jail because they don’t have the money to get out,” Lynch said. “We’ve outlawed usury. We’ve outlawed debtors prisons. We cannot cloak it in the language of fines and fees and make it right.”

In February, the Inquisitr reported Houston, Texas, resident Paul Aker was jailed for owing $1,500 in student loan debt. According to reports, Aker was apprehended by seven U.S. Marshals — who “were wearing combat gear and carrying guns.”

Although the arrest stemmed from a debt, Aker was officially charged with contempt of court. Authorities said the defendant was summoned to appear in court to disclose his assets to the holder of the student loan — who was previously granted judgment in civil court. As he failed to appear, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Like Aker, many defendants who owe debt are ultimately jailed on criminal charges for failing to appear or to comply with a court order. However, courts will no longer be able to threaten defendants with jail if they cannot pay their fines due to indigency.

According to the DOJ, court fines should not be a jailable offense. And they have pledged to help state and local courts follow through with the new guidelines.

[Image via Shutterstock/BotN66]