U.S. Department Of Justice Warns Lower Courts Not To Jail Poor Due To Inability To Pay Fines

Don’t jail the poor for their inability to pay fine for minor infractions, the U.S. Department of Justice warns state and municipal courts Monday. The Department of Justice issued new guidelines today to prevent those defined as indigent from being incarcerated for minor crimes, reports Fox 2 News.

According to a letter sent out by Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, to court admins and justices across the country, the new “legal guidance” is meant to address “some of the most common practices that run afoul of the United States Constitution and/or other federal laws.”

DOJ warns

One of the most insidious and widespread practices that the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to put the brakes on is municipalities which use court fines and assessments as a primary source of revenue within their jurisdictions. Doing so, according to the Justice Department, is contrary to the spirit and letter of the U.S. Constitution.

The practice, which is more widespread than most people are aware, got national attention following 2014’s riots in Ferguson, Missouri, which followed the police shooting death of Michael Brown. A follow-up Justice Department investigation uncovered practices among the Ferguson Police and city court system that were considered both racially motivated and unconstitutional. According to the Justice Department investigation, citizens under the jurisdiction of the departments were sometimes jailed simply because they hadn’t paid traffic or other low-level fines.

In another letter to court administrators, the U.S. Department of Justice clarified that the Ferguson area is “far from alone” when it comes to such policies, with similar practices being commonplace throughout the United States. To make matters worse, in some cases, indigent defendants lose everything: their jobs, their homes, because of the practice of many cities to use warrants and arrests to enforce payment of low-level fines. In many cases, says the Department of Justice, those fines grow exponentially over time as a result of nonpayment.

Debtor's prison

In addition to warning local courts not to jail residents for nonpayment of petty fines, the U.S. Justice Department advised state and local courts that it would be setting aside $2.5 million in grants to help local jurisdictions research alternative ways to enforce their court fines — ways that the Justice Department hopes won’t involve robbing citizens of their freedom over traffic citations.

The new Department of Justice guidelines include some specific, key points.

  • State and local court systems should not jail offenders for nonpayment of fees and fines without first determining that the nonpayment is willful and not the result of inability to pay.
  • State and local courts must consider penalties other than incarceration for “indigent defendants” who cannot pay their fines due to poverty or financial hardship.
  • Bail and bond regulations should not be used as a method to force the poor to remain incarcerated solely because they lack the financial wherewithal to bail/bond out of jail for traffic or other “low-level” offenses.
  • State and local court systems should not use arrest warrants and/or the suspension of driving privileges as routine ways of “coercing payment of court debt.”

As RT reports, the U.S. Department of Justice warns local courts that such practices “perpetuate poverty and result in unnecessary deprivations of liberty” — often at the expense of the poorest, most vulnerable citizens in a given jurisdiction. In many cases, these people lack the financial ability to fight such egregious fines, and can be trapped in a vicious cycle.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch weighed in on the issue in a statement, calling the practice of jailing poor people due to their inability to pay fines for low-level offenses “the criminalization of poverty.”

The consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful – they are far-reaching. They not only affect an individual’s ability to support their family, but also contribute to an erosion of our faith in government.

Lynch went on to say that any abusive court practices that disproportionally impact the poor erode public trust in the government, adding that the legal system should be fair for all Americans, regardless of their economic status.

Let’s just hope that when the Justice Department warns lower courts that they are perpetuating a cycle of fines and poverty on the poorest of the poor in America, the courts are willing to make some changes to policies that punish the poor for their poverty.

[Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty Images]