Great article on how the Department of Justice is starting to crack down on courts and judges who are levying excessive court costs and fine that are becoming a barrier between the poor and the criminal justice system.
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday called on state judges across the country to root out unconstitutional policies that have locked poor people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail. It was the Obama administration’s latest effort to take its civil rights agenda to the states, which have become a frontier in the fight over the rights of the poor and the disabled, the transgender and the homeless.
In a letter to chief judges and court administrators, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, and Lisa Foster, who leads a program on court access, warned against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures. It chastised judges and court staff members for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. Such policies, the letter said, made it more likely that poor people would be arrested, jailed and fined anew — all for being unable to pay in the first place.
It is unusual for the Justice Department to write such a letter. It last did so in 2010, when the department told judges that they were obligated to provide translators for people who could not speak English. The letters do not have the force of law, but they declare the federal government’s position and put local officials on notice about its priorities.
Ms. Gupta said that in some cities, hefty fines served as a sort of bureaucratic cover charge for the right to seek justice. People cannot even start the process of defending themselves until they have settled their debts.
“This unconstitutional practice is often framed as a routine administrative matter,” Ms. Gupta wrote. “For example, a motorist who is arrested for driving with a suspended license may be told that the penalty for the citation is $300 and that a court date will be scheduled only upon the completion of a $300 payment.”
The letter echoes the conclusions of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Police Department and court in Ferguson, Mo. Investigators there concluded that the court was a moneymaking venture, not an independent branch of government. Ms. Gupta, who oversaw that investigation, has often cited Ferguson as a cautionary tale in her speeches, describing how fines for minor offenses like jaywalking pulled people into the criminal justice system and made it impossible to escape.
The Obama administration has used letters, both in and out of court, to help push the boundaries of civil rights law. In dozens of lawsuits around the country, many of which involved local disputes, the Justice Department has filed so-called statements of interest, throwing its weight behind private lawsuits. It has filed such statements in matters involving legal aid for the poor, transgender students, juvenile prisoners and people who take videos of police officers.
After the 2010 letter, the Justice Department opened investigations into the court systems in Colorado and North Carolina.
The department has broad authority to determine how the nation’s laws are enforced and, in many ways, how criminal defendants are treated in the nation’s 94 Federal District Courts. But most people interact only with the local or state courts, and that is where their impressions of the fairness of the American judicial system are formed.
Equal access to the courts is a constitutional right, and both Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., made court treatment a priority. Ms. Lynch recently spoke in forceful terms about Ferguson, and has called for fairness in how courts set bail, levy fines and determine sentences.
“When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor,” Ms. Lynch said at the White House in December. “Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk — only because they are poor. They don’t have money to get out of jail, and they certainly don’t have money to flee anywhere. Other people who do have the means can avoid the system, setting inequality in place from the beginning.”
The issue has helped forge alliances between liberal civil rights groups and conservative organizations. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, spoke last year at a White House summit meeting on poverty and incarceration. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, has brought lawsuits accusing cities of using court fines to raise revenue.
Ms. Gupta wrote in her letter that courts were obligated to consider whether defendants were able to pay their fines. And she discouraged judges from using license suspensions as a punishment for missed payments. Doing so, she wrote, made it harder for people to get to work and to court, and made it more likely that they would fall further behind in their payments or face new penalties for missing court appointments.
Some courts hire private contractors to run their probation departments, and Ms. Gupta raised concerns about agreements that allow those contractors to profit from discretionary fines that the companies themselves get to issue.
Along with the letter, the Justice Department announced on Monday that it would offer $2.5 million in grants to help courts change their policies on fines.