Justice Department to Judges: Jailing People Who Can’t Pay Fines is Unconstitutional

By Kenrya Rankin Mar 14, 2016

Today (March 14) the U.S. Department of Justice charged state judges with the task of tossing out policies that effectively create debtors’ prisons, filled with poor people who are unable to pay exorbitant fines for minor offenses. These policies are a major part of the government’s lawsuit against Ferguson.

“The consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful—they are far-reaching,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. “They not only affect an individual’s ability to support their family, but also contribute to an erosion of our faith in government. One of my top priorities as Attorney General is to help repair community trust where it has frayed, and a key part of that effort includes ensuring that our legal system serves every American faithfully and fairly, regardless of their economic status.”

The Justice Department created a package of resources meant to help end detrimental state and municipal policies. It includes a letter from the Civil Rights Division and the Office for Access to Justice that lays plain the legal obligations for state, local and Native courts when it comes to enforcing fines and fees. It includes this especially illustrative passage:

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.

To help judicial actors protect individuals’ rights and avoid unnecessary harm, we discuss below a set of basic constitutional principles relevant to the enforcement of fines and fees. These principles, grounded in the rights to due process and equal protection, require the following:

1. Courts must not incarcerate a person for nonpayment of fines or fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful; u2028

2. Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees; u2028

3. Courts must not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees; u2028

4. Courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees; u2028

5. Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections; u2028

6. Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release; and u2028

7. Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors. u2028

The New York Times reports that the letter is not legally binding, but it effectively clarifies the federal government’s position on the issue and provides guidance for state and municipal courts and officials.

The resource package also includes $2.5 million in grants for jurisdictions that want to test new strategies for assessing fines and fees; financial support for the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices; and a collection of studies and other research surrounding the issue.