U.S. Dept. of Justice issues list to help financially disadvantaged avoid jail for late fines

The United Stated Department of Justice issued an open letter to state and local courts they say is an effort to make sure that equal justice and due process is provided before them. In the letter to colleagues, the DOJ said that in recent years there has been increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions nationwide that are aimed at individuals charged with misdemeanors, quasi-criminal ordinance violations or civil infractions. It says that monetary fines are normal penalties for these types of infractions, but jail time is not typical.

The letter said that courts that jail defendants for these are performing unlawful practices causing some individuals to have more debt; face repeated, unnecessary jail time for said non-payment even though they pose no threat to society; and the possibility of losing their jobs which could lead to being trapped in a cycle of poverty that they cannot recover from.

Because these practices are not geared towards public safety, rather towards raising revenue, the letter said that courts can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents.

The following are the comments from the DOJ:

To help judicial actors protect individuals’ rights and avoid unnecessary harm, we discuss below a set of basic constitutional principles relevant to the enforcement of fines and fees. These principles, grounded in the rights to due process and equal protection, require the following:
(1) Courts must not incarcerate a person for nonpayment of fines or fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful;
(2) Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees;
(3) Courts must not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees;
(4) Courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees;
(5) Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections;
(6) Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release; and
(7) Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private
contractors.
The DOJ also said that courts who receive federal funding could be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, when they unnecessarily impose disparate harm on the basis of race or national origin.
Click on the link to read the full letter from the DOJ: