DOJ to state courts: stop jailing poor people over legal fees and fines

The past few years – particularly following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and subsequent investigations – have brought increased attention to a mounting problem: jailing the poor when they can’t pay fines and fees ordered by courts. This practice has been called the “criminalization of poverty”.

“The consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful – they are far-reaching,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch in a press release.  “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.”

A 2015 White House Report found that increased state and local spending on criminal justice has strained budgets, leading to the broader use of fines and fees to fill in the gaps. That means that concerns are growing about the expanding use of monetary penalties, which disproportionately impact poor defendants and offenders, according to the report.

Back in December 2015, the Department of Justice convened a diverse group of judges, court administrators, advocates, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to participate in a working session to discuss these issues; specifically the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees in state and local courts.

During that session, it became clear that “unlawful and harmful practices exist in certain jurisdictions throughout the country” and participants called on the Department to provide greater clarity to state and local courts regarding their “legal obligations with respect to fines and fees and to share best practices”.

The Department of Justice announced today the availability of a number of resources designed to assist state and local reform efforts and to support the ongoing work of state judges, court administrators, policymakers and advocates in "ensuring equal justice for all people, regardless of financial circumstance”.

Those resources include:

  • A Dear Colleague Letter from the Civil Rights Division and the Office for Access to Justice to provide greater clarity to state and local courts regarding their legal obligations with respect to the enforcement of court fines and fees
  • The announcement of $2.5 million in competitive grants through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) to state, local or tribal jurisdictions that, together with community partners, want to test strategies to restructure the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees. 
  • Support for the National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices, which is led by the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators, which is funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and the State Justice Institute. The task force will draft model statutes, court rules and procedures, and will develop an online clearinghouse of best practices. 
  • A Resource Guide that assembles issue studies and other publications related to the assessment and enforcement of court fines and fees to help leaders make informed policy decisions and pursue sound strategies at the state, local and tribal levels.