Court costs that trap the poor

Other Editors

Nearly a decade ago, a federal investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri, police department drew widespread attention to how many municipalities rely on funding from hefty court fees and fines, often resulting from minor automobile-related violations. This encourages aggressive enforcement and leads to modern-day debtor prisons, in which poor people are incarcerated not for any underlying criminal conduct — only for lacking money to afford escalating penalties. The Obama Justice Department issued guidance aimed at limiting this pervasive and predatory practice. But the Trump administration, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rescinded it in 2017. Last month, the Biden Justice Department released a more robust version of the Obama-era memo that lays the groundwork for legal challenges to excessive court fees.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta argued that overly burdensome fees and fines violate several constitutional rights: The Eighth Amendment bans cruel and unusual punishment, prohibiting costs that are grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offense; the Sixth Amendment requires due process protections, such as access to counsel, when unpaid fines might lead to jailtime; and the 14th Amendment prohibits incarceration for not paying fees without establishing that failing to do so was willful and considering alternative punishments, she argued. Unfortunately, the federal government is limited in restricting outrageous fees and fines at the state and local levels. But the Justice Department can use the bully pulpit. The federal government can also condition federal grants on municipalities improving their practices, and the department can support legal challenges by defendants trapped in a spiral of fines and fees. Fortunately, despite the Trump administration’s rollback of the previous guidance, 24 states and D.C. have ended or amended policies that suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and fees since 2016.

This effort is impressively bipartisan. Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma have eliminated some or all fees charged to youths in the juvenile system. California has eliminated 40 fees and discharged $16.5 billion in court debt over the past three years. Delaware passed a law prohibiting courts from issuing arrest warrants only for unpaid court debt. Oregon forgave nearly $2 million in uncollected traffic fines to allow 7,000 residents to reapply for driver’s licenses they had lost for not paying. The Fines and Fees Justice Center, working with the American Civil Liberties Union on the left and Americans for Prosperity on the right, launched a national campaign last year called End Justice Fees.

But the problem persists. A county in Kentucky with just over 100,000 people reportedly jailed six people in a single week last November for “non-payment of court costs, fees, or fines.” Hundreds of people get sentenced to “restitution centers” every year in Mississippi. There’s a systemic racial element: A Nevada study found that African Americans constitute 13% of Clark County’s population but are the targets of 44% of arrest warrants issued for failing to pay a traffic ticket. As attorney general, Mr. Sessions also shuttered the Office for Access to Justice, which the Obama administration created to help people with low incomes navigate the legal system. Attorney General Merrick Garland reopened the office. It’s now working on a best-practices guide to highlight jurisdictions thoughtfully tailoring fines and fees. The new guidelines emphasize the importance of studying a defendant’s ability to pay, considering alternatives to fines and fees and ensuring due process protections so people can challenge unfair costs.

Fines and fees cannot be totally eliminated. A fine is often a good substitute for jailtime. It’s also essential for traffic safety that there be consequences, short of incarceration, for speeding, reckless driving, parking in unauthorized places, cracked windshields, broken taillights, and so forth. And it’s fair to compel citizens who use the justice system to cover some share of its operating costs, especially when they are found guilty or at fault.

But state and local governments cross the line when, first, they fail to consider someone’s ability to pay and, second, they rely on fees to fund extraneous projects and programs unrelated to the court’s functioning. The Justice Department’s 2015 report said policing practices in Ferguson were “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” That should never be the case.

— The Washington Post


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