Tuesday, March 15, 2016
The U.S. Department of Justice issued guidance and resources yesterday for state courts on the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees--and how to avoid access barriers, the criminalization of poverty, and other constitutional problems for those who can't pay. The move addresses a disturbing trend in state courts to use fines and fees to raise revenue and line the pockets of private corporations, while at the same time barring access to justice and jailing people because they're poor.
The Civil Rights Division and Office for Access to Justice issued a "Dear Colleague" letter and Resource Guide, and announced $2.5 million in grants and support for a task force to address these issues.
The Dear Colleague letter outlines the problem:
Recent years have seen increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions around the country--often with respect to individuals accused of misdemeanors, quasi-criminal ordinance violations, or civil infractions. Typically, courts do not sentence defendants to incarceration in these cases; monetary fines are the norm. Yet the harm caused by unlawful practices in these jurisdictions can be profound. Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape. Furthermore, in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that 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.
The letter outlines seven actions that state courts must take to bring their fine- and fee-practices in line with Bearden v. Georgia, Boddie v. Connecticut, and, most recently, Turner v. Rogers, among other due process and equal protection cases protecting access and barring the criminalization of poverty.