Judicial resistance to excessive monetary sanctions

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.

DOJ condemns incarceration for non-payment of monetary sanctions

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.

Lawsuits attack monetary sanctioning

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