Jeff Sessions Takes a Stand for Debtors’ Prisons

During the holiday season, many of us think about what we can do to help people struggling with poverty. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, decided just before Christmas to rescind a guidance meant to protect low-income Americans.

The 2016 guidance, issued by former President Obama’s Justice Department, urged state and local courts nationwide to abide by constitutional principles prohibiting the jailing of poor people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. Jeff Sessions’ action makes clear that he and his Justice Department are unconcerned by courts trampling on the rights of poor people.

The Obama Justice Department issued the 2016 letter after reports and lawsuits by the ACLU and other groups revealed how modern-day debtors’ prisons function in more than a dozen states, despite the fact that the U.S. two centuries ago formally outlawed jailing people simply because they have unpaid debts.

These efforts revealed that poor people were being locked up in Georgia, Washington, Mississippi, and elsewhere without court hearings or legal representation when they could not pay fines and fees for traffic tickets or other civil infractions or criminal offenses. These efforts also show that modern-day debtors’ prisons result from state laws allowing or requiring the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines or fees without first requiring confirmation that the person could actually pay.

Modern-day debtors’ prisons received unprecedented national attention in 2015 when the Justice Department issued a 185-page report in its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. It documented how Ferguson police sought to advance the “City’s focus on revenue rather than ... public safety needs,” leading to the routine incarceration of poor people to elicit court fine and fee payments, which raised due process concerns and reflected racial bias.

This wave of attention on draconian debtors' prisons spurred the Justice Department to issue the 2016 letter on fines and fees.

Prior to rescinding the letter and other Obama-era guidances the attorney general claimed that such documents constitute overreach and “impose new obligations” on parties “outside the executive branch.” But that is not what the Justice Department letter on fines and fees did.

The Obama Justice Department showed leadership by reminding state chief justices and court administrators that the U.S. Constitution’s promises of due process and equal protection apply when courts impose and collect fines and fees. Far from creating new policy, the letter cited caselaw from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts in support of seven constitutional principles. Among the most basic of these principles is the fact that the 14th Amendment prohibits jailing people for non-payment of court fines and fees without safeguards, including a hearing before a neutral judge to determine one’s ability to pay, and meaningful alternatives to jail for people who cannot pay.

Sessions’ withdrawal of the letter on fines and fees cannot rescind these principles or the caselaw on which they are based. Nor can it stop the ongoing momentum behind reform of modern-day debtors’ prisons in places like Biloxi, Mississippi; Missouri; Ohio; Michigan; and New Hampshire.

Several weeks ago, a federal court ruled that New Orleans judges faced a conflict of interest in jailing poor people for unpaid fines because the judges control the money collected and rely on it for court funding. That same week, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction halting Michigan’s system for suspending driver’s licenses upon non-payment of traffic tickets due to constitutional concerns. And days later, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety agreed to reinstate the driver’s licenses of all drivers whose licenses were suspended for non-payment of court fines and fees.

There is no place in this country for a justice system that lets rich people buy their freedom while poor people are locked up or lose their driver’s licenses because they can’t afford to pay money to courts. The momentum for change will continue even as the current Justice Department declines to lead by encouraging fairness and equal treatment of rich and poor.

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Simpler reality: Debtor's prison is prohibited by the highest law in the land. Educate yourself before you play the "poverty is a character flaw" game.

Eliz Madara

If a person POOR OR NOT getsatraffic ticket, it is their responsibility to PAY IT. Arrangements could be made for small increment payments. Being poor does not absolve anyone of their responsibility to follow the law and be accountable for their actions


you serious?
If you have ever been in a court room, fines are made up numbers from rich judges and politicians who make 120K-200K a year. They don't know what it is to struggle to pay a "small 300 fine" to many americans making 50K or less that's a financial hardship. It's all fairy dust and smoke and mirrors for the judges and police to STEAL as much of the little hard earned after tax money from as many people in the neighborhood as possible. That way the towns can fund their underfunded pension plans. So that after 20 years police and judges can sit at home, don nothing, and collect from the rest of us hard working americans.

Neil B

You can add NJ to that list. I spent 30 days in a County Jail for a drug court related matter and met 10 people on my tier alone that were locked up for failure to pay what to me seem like very miniscule finds that they were none the less too poor to pay for and these are for misdemeanors


NOregard Secessions--a KKK pig so egregious that he could not get a federal judgeship under Ronnie Raygun!!!--and his utter Rethug fascism. It's really enough to make one want to buy into rilijinn just to fantasize about that sociopath and his fellow Rethugs all in perpetual torture.


Perhaps Sessions needs someone tro read him the Constitution...slooowly...

Margaret B Kng

Jeff Sessions may want rethink this real quick because f he does this, then he puts the Presient Trump behind bars because according to many companies, Trump still Wes them, refuses to pay including his court costs and is certainly able to pay! WHAT SAY YOU MR? SESSIONS???

Claudia Poindexter

In a tweet I sent to you-wonderful ACLU-about this story when I read it- I said this was the last straw for me.I will be more aggressive in fighting this whole admin. Debtors Prison!? It must be unconstitutional because Pres.Obama sent notice to courts not to do this. I hope you can hold their feet to the fire.Sessions first.


the fines are too high. set by rich asswhole judges and mayors who have 120K - 200K salaries. These crooked politicians don't know what living on 50K salary is. eat food or pay fine?
hum rich asswhole judges don't have that choice. They choose Caribbean vacations where foreigners cook for them and don't know what it is not to have money.


So,if you are POOr,NoProblem,
$2oo.00 Sneakers OK,$80.00 Hairdoo,Ok
no money to pay Fine OK.
what's wrong here???


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