Justice Dept. tells state judges to stop targeting the poor

In a letter to state judges nationwide, the DOJ  condemned the practice of jailing people over failure to pay traffic tickets, court fees, or fines for petty offenses. 

Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, Fred Robinson talks about his probation and struggles to pay his fines and court fees, from a hospital bed at St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Probation is supposed to be a substitute for jail or prison, requiring offenders to maintain good behavior. But in more than a dozen states, probation for misdemeanors is a profit-making – and increasingly controversial – venture.

As part of the Obama administration’s latest civil rights initiative that examines individual states, the Justice Department is now calling out state court systems for operating “unconstitutional” policies that unfairly target poor people in a cycle of fines, debt, and imprisonment.

This unconstitutional practice is often framed as a routine administrative matter,” Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, wrote to chief judges and court administrator warning them against procedures like using arrest warrants to collect fines and debts.

“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.”

While the letter doesn’t have the power of law, it declares the stance of the federal government. Letters from the DOJ addressing judges are uncommon, legal experts say. The last time it did so was 2010, when the department informed judges that their courts were obligated to provided translators for those who cannot speak English.

In conjunction with the letter, the DOJ also announced Monday that it would offer $2.5 million in competitive grants to state and local governments to explore ways for courts and cities to reform their fines and fees.

This recent push was largely prompted by the DOJ investigation of Ferguson, Mo., in which federal authorities found that its municipal court was essentially running a profit-making scheme. Within this operation, safety is often compromised and arrest warrants are routinely issued to residents too poor to pay fines for petty offenses.

"Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson's municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees," the investigation report read.

But such ventures extend well beyond Missouri. According to an NPR investigation that began in 2014, all 50 states require defendants to pay some degree of court fees and fines for minor offenses. But at least 44 of them go as far as charging defendants for the public defender legal fees, room and board in prison, or for their own probation supervision, all of which can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It could start with a single traffic ticket. In Wisconsin, for instance, a first offense for drinking and driving will result in a nine-month license suspension. But if you drive with a broken taillight and then fail to pay the fine, you could lose your license for two years.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as reported by NPR, at least 75 percent of Americans who get their licenses suspended continue driving anyway, resulting in more fines, tickets, accruing debt, and eventually, an arrest warrant.

People with money can afford to pay the ticket upfront and will not have to go through any court process with the guarantee of more charges. For the less financially secure, however, one ticket could catalyze a host of problems.

This is exactly what happened to Angel Hilton, a mother and former owner of a janitorial business, when she couldn’t pay for a parking ticket.

The unpaid ticket meant she couldn't renew her car registration, for which she was issued more tickets. After missing a court date – she says she wasn’t notified – she was stopped by the police and handcuffed in front of her daughter.

"This basically ruined my life," she told NPR. "I mean, I was to the point that I'm building my business. I'm growing. And now I'm back to depending on public assistance."

The use of arrest warrants can apply for even the slightest offenses. Kyle Dewitt of Ionia, Mich. was fined $155 for catching a fish off season. Then 19, Dewitt said he had just lost his job so he couldn’t afford to pay. This landed him in jail for three days.

According to Alexes Harris, a sociologist at the University of Washington, those most likely to go through this cyclical process and face arrest are poor.

"They tend to be people of color, African-Americans and Latinos," she told NPR. "They tend to be high school dropouts, they tend to be people with mental illness, with substance abuse. So these are already very poor and marginalized people in our society, and then we impose these fiscal penalties to them and expect that they make regular payments, when in fact the vast majority are unable to do so."

Although the DOJ letter has little means of enforcement, there have been bipartisan efforts in tackling the systemic injustice. Lawsuits have been led by not only civil rights groups such as the ACLU but also conservative ones. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, is among the latter to have brought lawsuits against cities that court fines to raise revenue

In the lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, the organization is suing on behalf of the residents of Pagedale, Mo., who have been subject to fines and court fees for offenses as minor as keeping unsightly lawns or houses.

“We hope that if the court agrees with us, the residents of Pagedale will no longer be treated as walking cash machines by their city government and that the city will limit its regulatory authority to things that actually affect health or safety,” William R. Maurer, the managing attorney of the Institute for Justice’s office in Washington state, told The New York Times.

As of late last year, there are more than a handful of lawsuits in different municipalities that aim to dismantle the unfair penalization of the impoverished.

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