The Justice Department is sending a letter to chief judges and court administrators in all 50 states, warning them that the practice of assessing fines and fees to “fill their jurisdictions’ coffers” may be unconstitutional.
The department has a “strong interest” in making sure the rights of citizens are protected, according to the letter, which was written by Vanita Gupta, the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice.
“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,” Gupta and Foster wrote. “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.”
Many states and courts have been accused of operating modern-day debtors’ prisons, incarcerating individuals who are unable to pay fines for misdemeanor offenses, like traffic violations. Those incarcerations disproportionately affect poorer and low-income individuals.
The letter lays out seven guidelines that should be followed when jailing individuals for non-payment of fines. Arrest warrants and suspension of driver’s licenses should not be used to coerce payments; courts should make sure that individuals are not indigent and must establish the the failure to pay was willful.