The Department of Justice Throws Its Weight Behind Ending the Jailing of the Poor for Unpaid Fines

The fight against modern-day debtors’ prisons just got a new champion: the Department of Justice. 

Yesterday the department called upon state court leaders to ensure that court rules and procedures on fine and fee collection afford due process and equal protection of the law and align with sound public policy. The timing could not have been better because today the ACLU reached a settlement in our lawsuit against Biloxi, Mississippi, which challenged the jailing of poor people if they could not pay the entire amount of their outstanding court fines and fees up front, in full, and in cash. The agreement provides a critically important model on how to implement the Justice Department’s recommendations and do even more to treat the rich and poor equally and fairly when they step into court.

The Justice Department came to a pretty simple conclusion that should not be controversial: People should never be locked up behind bars for being unable to pay court fines and fees they cannot afford. But local governments across the country are using threats of jail and actual imprisonment to secure payments toward court fines and fees. The ACLU has exposed and challenged these practices in places as diverse as DeKalb County, Georgia; Benton County, Washington; Eastpointe, Michigan; and Biloxi, Mississippi

In one stroke, the Justice Department has dramatically amplified our efforts. It has issued a strong letter to state chief justices and court administrators making it clear that the 14th Amendment prohibits jailing people for nonpayment of court fines and fees without procedural safeguards. These measures include an ability-to-pay hearing before a neutral judge on whether a person’s nonpayment was willful or due to poverty, meaningful alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay, and legal representation in certain collection enforcement actions.

DOJ’s letter also echoes longstanding ACLU concerns about the bias introduced when municipalities enlist for-profit probation companies that have a direct financial stake in the debts they are hired to collect. Employees hurt the company bottom line when they help courts identify indigent people whose payment of company service fees should be waived. The ACLU has sued the for-profit probation company Judicial Corrections Services, Inc. in Georgia and Biloxi.

But there is a way for municipalities to stay on the right side of the Constitution. Today’s settlement with Biloxi, Mississippi, provides a step-by-step guide on how court leaders can heed the Justice Department’s call to bring their court rules and practices in line with constitutional standards when imposing and collecting fines and fees.

The sweeping reforms adopted by Biloxi include the elimination of for-profit probation companies from the collections process and the adoption of detailed new court procedures,  including a “bench card” to guide judges on how to avoid jailing people who are too poor to pay. Biloxi has also established a full-time public defender’s office to protect indigent people’s right to counsel, and it also will make payment plans, community service, and a host of other alternatives to jail available for those who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. Judges will even consider ability to pay at sentencing to avoid imposing cripplingly high fines and fees that the poor cannot even hope to repay.

These reforms are transformative. They provide a map for other cities to follow in heeding the Department’s call, long before being sued.

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Anonymous

Great news! This is something that has frustrated me for a while. For 3 years I was living on only about $1000 a month and there were several times when I got petty tickets for things like out of date inspection. The reason my inspection was out of date is because my car needed to have things fixed to pass, and I didn't have the money to have them fixed. It was ridiculous. How am I going to be able to pay to have the things fixed if I keep having to pay fines because my inspection isn't current? Yea, that makes a whole lot of sense.

Anonymous

So basically the poor are now being given a free pass to break the law without fear of fines or imprisonment. Great job, ACLU.

Anonymous

How inane. ***smh***
Do you really think that someone who is poor should go to prison for not paying a fine? Were you aware that it is against the constitution of the state of Washington to put people in jail for that reason????? Benton County, Washington got caught, too bad the other counties are getting away with it. I sincerely hope you get to take a ride on the railroad that we call the justice system in this country and get slapped with a fine and fees you can't afford, and go to jail.

Anonymous

Cmon that is just silly. Do you really think people are going to purposely go around committing fineable actions because they think there will be no repercussions. They're still penalties incurred and people will have to do community service etc to pay off fines. However if non payment is due to poverty (I'm sure they will have a standard or way to prove lack of income) then people should not be thrown in jail. That is part of the constitution. I guess you hate the constitution.

Anonymous

No you fool, poor people are being freed from slavery. You acquire fines you cant pay on time which leads to more fines, exponentially making it impossible to pay due to limited funds. Your statement is basically saying poor people whod rather eat and have gas to get to work vs giving that money to fine collectors should be jailed, bc its their fault theyre poor.

Anonymous

The system is so over priced with fines its crazy how 1 state a ticket for speeding 65 in 55 costs 120.00 but in state next to it the ticket costs 250.00. How is that justice to the american people? The state of wisconsin and a few others if your caught speeding your either forced to pay the fine or be locked in jail and car impounded if your not a resident of that state. The system has failed to give justice,but the government body has failed to give a fair and reasonable cost to living ratio that is justified with the cost of fines tripled and states adding late fees unheard of, some friends have said the courts allow companies to come after you and charge you 50.00 late fees a month if bill not paid in full, how is a person suppose to pay that when bill is over a 1000.00, that is ridiculous. Electric companies, etc.etc are charging 15.00 to 30.00 late fees a month if bill not paid in full and they already over charging for service as it is. My home owners insurance agent told me flat out in winter DO NOT SHOVEL the sidewalk in front of your house , because you are liable if someone falls, its the cities property and the city sends me a notice demanding I shovel and clean sidewalk saying its mine; but when I say well I am going to dig it out and place grass they say I can not because its there's; I am lost a double standard ? I cleaned the sidewalk but did it and wrote a bill o the city for cleaning there property and wrote it as such , sunday is GOD's day but you failed to clean your sidewalks at such address, so I make 80.00 for double time on sundays and that is 2 hours work , gasoline for snow blower 2.25, shovel usage wear and tear 1.75, Salting sidewalk 7.00 a bag with 2 bags used 14.00. The bill stated that if not paid in full a LATE FEE of 50.00 a month will be added, after 2 years the city finally paid the entire bill, because I sent it to collections and had there credit rating take a hit.

Anonymous

Right on. I'm sick of underhanded "taxes"

Anonymous

Really ...is this a new thing because of the Black lives matter movement....don't fine those poor brainless black people....just set them free

Anonymous

Quite a leap and quit stupid as well.

Anonymous

This has nothing to do with being black. It has everything to do with being poor.

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