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DOJ Presses Localities To Cut Court Fines, Fees That Hurt The Poor


The Justice Department is increasing pressure on state and local judges to reduce fines and fees charged in courts, practices that leave the poor, juvenile offenders and people of color disproportionately saddled with debt.


Many localities use revenue from fines and the surcharges imposed by judges in criminal, civil and juvenile court to pay for court expenses, even judge’s salaries, or to supplement state or local government budgets, the New York Times reports.


Officials across the political spectrum agree that the practice is damaging and discriminatory, with wide-ranging consequences in conservative and liberal states alike.


In Florida, a person can lose their driver’s license or voter registration for failing to pay bills. In Texas, indigent defenders sometimes opt for jail time to pay their balances. In California, surcharges tacked onto some car-related infractions can add up to double or triple the amount of the original penalty, creating a spiral of debt that can destroy a person’s credit rating and access to employment or a lease.


The Justice Department’s third-highest-ranking official, Vanita Gupta, told local judges and juvenile courts on Thursday that imposing fines and fees without accounting for a person’s financial status violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Doing so “may erode trust between local governments and their constituents, increase recidivism, undermine rehabilitation and successful re-entry, and generate little or no net revenue,” said Gupta in a letter.

To people able to pay their debts, such penalties, which can range from a few dollars to hundreds, are a minor nuisance. To the poor and to new immigrants, they can lead to catastrophe, “including escalating debt, being subjected to changes in immigration status, and loss of one’s employment, driver’s license, voting rights, or home, among others,” Gupta said. The original impetus for change was the 2014 shooting of a Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. A Justice Department investigation into systemic discrimination found that a quarter of the city’s municipal budget was derived from fines and fees leveled disproportionately against Black residents.

The policy Gupta outlined was enacted during the Obama administration, when she led the Justice Department’s civil rights division. It was revoked under Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, but a handful of states, including several controlled by Republicans, have taken steps to reduce the practice.

DOJ has limited powers to enforce the directive, but it “helps litigators sue jurisdictions engaged in unconstitutional and illegal conduct and gives advocates and policymakers a strong argument when they pursue legislative action,” said Lisa Foster, a former DOJ official who works for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. “And it gives judges and courts a road map for reform.”

Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has tried to eliminate the fee system in his state. He has argued that it not only penalizes poverty but ultimately hurts the state by pushing marginal offenders onto the fringes of society and deeper into the criminal justice system. “You get a guy who appears in court after running a stop sign — that’s a $200 fine with a $200 court fee — and he just can’t pay,” he said.

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