The US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center released a resource guide targeted towards executive-level decision makers to evaluate and reform their jurisdictions’ fines and fees.
Ed Spillane, a judge in the College Station, TX municipal court, writes about his approach to reduce the abuse of monetary sanctions in the Washington Post:
What to do with these cases? In Tate v. Short , a 1971 Supreme Court decision, the justices held that jail time is not a proper punishment for fine-only criminal cases, citing the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But in many jurisdictions, municipal judges — whether they’re overworked, under pressure to generate revenue through fees, skeptical of defendants’ claims to poverty or simply ignorant of the law — are not following the rules. As a result, far too many indigent defendants are cited for contempt of court and land behind bars for inability to pay.
There’s another way, and I’ve been experimenting with it in my own courtroom.
The Advancement Project just issued a new report that details how an anti-immigrant driving law has had severe impacts on communities of color in the state.
The federal Department of Justice sent a letter to state court systems stating that judges should consider alternatives to jail for poor defendants who do not have the ability to pay. It also states that judges should establish that failure to pay was willful before putting defendants in jail.
The DOJ recently issued a new set of recommendations to state and local legislators and judges recommending broad reforms to the imposition of monetary sanctions and consequences for non-payment. In particular, they reinforce the unconstitutionality of incarcerating individuals for non-payment of fines and fees when they are unable to pay. Principal Investigator Alexes Harris was part of the White House convening that helped inform DOJ on monetary sanctioning practices around the country.
The US Department of Justice recently convened a summit on the practice and impact of monetary sanctioning. Details on the findings of the summit and its recommendations are posted here.
The Chicago Tribune has a recent story detailing Illinois’ practice of suing formerly incarcerated people to pay for their own incarceration.
Recent efforts by the ACLU and SPLC to target municipalities for abuses of court fines and fees, as well as incarceration for non-payment are receiving national attention.
Civil rights lawyers are using a new strategy to change a common court practice that they have long argued unfairly targets the poor.
At issue is the way courts across the country sometimes issue arrest warrants for indigent people when they fall behind on paying court fees and fines owed for minor offenses like traffic tickets. Last year, an NPR investigation showed that courts in all 50 states are requiring more of these payments. Now attorneys are aggressively suing cities, police and courts, forcing reform.
Since September, six lawsuits were filed against New Orleans; Rutherford County, Tenn.; Biloxi and Jackson, Miss.; Benton County, Wash.; and Alexander City, Ala. In the past year, lawyers have also won settlements that have forced courts to change practices in Montgomery, Ala.; DeKalb County, Ga.; and St. Louis County, Mo.
Biloxi is the latest city to be sued. Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who filed the lawsuit, charges the city runs an illegal “debtors’ prison” when it puts indigent people in jail without adequately trying to determine whether the person has the means to pay court fines and fees or without then offering adequate alternative ways to pay off a fine, like being offered the chance to do community service.
Listen to the full story from NPR’s All Things Considered
Radley Balko writes about the debtor’s prison in Biloxi for the Washington Post