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DOJ Steps Up Bid to Combat “Criminalization of Poverty” Highlighted by Ferguson Abuses

Attorney General Loretta Lynch is calling for a crackdown on steep fines and fees that often lead to jail time.

(Photo: Prison fence via Shutterstock; Edited: JR / TO)

Attorney General Loretta Lynch is calling for a crackdown on local courts that bog down defendants with steep fines and fees that often lead to jail time.

The Justice Department announced Monday it will offer $2.5 million in grants to state and local jurisdictions that develop alternatives to financial penalties that inflict undue harm on already-impoverished citizens.

The department’s Civil Rights Division on Monday also fired off a letter to chief judges and court administrators across all 50 states, laying out new principles that should be followed when issuing fines and fees. Those include alternatives to incarceration, when defendants are found to be unable to pay. It also called on courts to provide “meaningful notice” and “in appropriate cases counsel” to those facing fines.

The missive cited legal precedent in the letter, stating that “due process and equal protection principles of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit punishing a person for his poverty.” It was written by Vanita Gupta, the Principal Deputy Assistant General at the division, and Lisa Foster, the 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,” the two wrote. They described excessive fees and fines on the indigent as causing harm that “can be profound.”

Lynch echoed this sentiment, charging local authorities with an abuse of power that does “not only affect an individual’s ability to support their family, but also contribute[s] to an erosion of our faith in government.”

The matter came to the forefront of the nation’s agenda in the aftermath of the Michael Brown killing in August 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Brown, a black teenager, was shot dead by now-former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. The slaying sparked protests, brought attention to the #BlackLivesMatter movement and shed light on other forms of systemic abuses that disproportionately impact African American communities.

Last year the Justice Department released a report on Ferguson, documenting rampant abusive court practices that essentially forced impoverished citizens into debtor’s prisons. The findings included a story of one woman being jailed twice for not paying two traffic tickets totaling $152. Another case involved a woman on a fixed-income who was jailed and fined over $1,000 for failure to pay a prior trash-removal citation.

The Washington Post reported in 2014 that some municipalities in St. Louis County rely on court fees and fines, mostly derived from traffic violations, to fund 40 percent of their budget.

“In a city — in a country — where we have ruled that debtors’ prisons are unconstitutional, too many of our citizens are simple in jail because they don’t have the money to get out,” Lynch said last December.

“We cannot cloak it in the language of fees and fines and make it right,” she added.

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