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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Damien McLeod

The Republicans won't like it, abusing the impoverished and downtrodden is one of the things that brings them great pleasure.

Aimee Schilling

The degree of hatred in the heart of some Americans is truly sickening. Never mind doing what is right, many people are so hell bent on punishing the poor that they would rather see thousands of dollars wasted keeping someone behind bars when clearly it would benefit everyone to have that person do community service. Maybe even think out of the box and do something like a community food garden for community service hours. Maybe, we could feed the poor not punish. The system is broken.


Perhaps people could stop committing infractions that result in fines. What a novel concept.


True to that.. Community service, but when the jails get paid 20+ for each person..


What about facilities for people already in jail for non-payment of court fines?


Many years ago I was arrested for DUI yes I know it was wrong, and have never arrested again for DUI. However it was in Alabama and they threatened to look me up and even had a bench warrant for me. I tried to pay but couldn't, only until many years later I got my VA benefits and was able to pay it but with huge penaltys attached. No one helped me and I had to learn the hard way so why is anyone else any different? Oh I am white female btw maybe that is why. I don't agree with fines for stupid things like inspecting car fines or city junk. But other things like real crimes, why are s anyone different?


Rewarding law breakers as usual by the Obama administration.

Jen G.

What about the child support hustle DOJ is running.

Exploiting American children to extort $$$ and matching federal funds? Then garnishing wages, violations of every privacy issue possible, and running account info ( on child support) at EZ-Pass...

carry on..nothing to see here.........smh.


wondering where my comment went..?


If a fine can be paid it will be, if it cannot due to being impoverished there will be options for repayment . It makes no sense to imprison someone for not being able to pay a fine with cash. They will still have to pay with time and service. It's like asking a person too poor to buy food to give up a meal to punish them for not buying food. Get it? Imprisonment means most certainly a lost job if they have one, which means lost housing, families without support, they go on welfare, deplete food banks, and get medicaid for their healthcare which depletes the system even more. Alternatives to cash is necessary, not to mention the point that being punitive to a person or worse, targeting them because they cannot pay is wrong. I overheard discussions by officers in BILOXI that target the poor or people that they think are sub-standard by ticketing and harassing them until they move. These officers were not representative of all of them, some are very rational and thoughtful people trying to do their best. These people have the right to a hassle free life if they are not being hurtful to others. Poverty is not a crime. If you have never been there, stop judging. It CAN happen to anyone and it's increasingly more difficult to overcome ; meaning you stay there longer and have to do more to get out. Speaking from someone who has BEEN there through no fault of my own. No one gets a free pass, but some people cannot use MONEY as a crutch to get out of a problem.


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