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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Prohuman

Apparently, you have no idea what you're talking about. Sanctimonious anti empathetic preachers are the downfall of decent society.

Anonymous

You used we in your sentence. So you have been jailed for not paying a fine?

Jbutler

Ridiculous. So if you are rich, you get to break laws at your leisure, with little to deter you from doing it again, while even the slightest mistake of a poor person can result in their life getting ruined? You sir, are a donkey. I dunno about you but there have been times i have been oblivious to the speed limit in an area. It's called a MISTAKE.

Heart

You must be kidding.

Noonespecial

Fines, like taxes should be calculated by the ability to pay.....on a sliding scale...why should a traffic ticket literally ruin an already struggling family?

JOYCE

YOU ARE A DOPE

Anonymous

In 2017 there have been numerous documented cases where the police focus on the poor whether black or brown. How is it that you only see the people that are being oppressed violate the laws openly when there is a microscopic eye on them, unless you have been misled in the past decade. The article specifically refers to people that are unable to pay for traffic fines and any other fines the police have written. Their inability to pay should not place them in jail especially with our prison population at 2.2 million and growing with 75% are black and brown non violent offenders incarcerated for crimes such as these offenses. But I’m guessing you are a staunch conservative and can’t wait to vote for Trump once again.

Anonymous

Well.. Lets examine traffic offenses...

The top traffic offenses are:

Lack of insurance.
Lack of registration.
A Light out.
And parking violations.

All of which directly concern finances. A poor person is going to struggle to keep all of these things in check. Plus... In my city, a $25 dollar ticket also comes with your car getting towed... Jacking the price immediately to $175 or more.

Sooo.. Yes.. I am saying many times the "traffic offenses" are unconstitutionally bent toward punishing the poor for being poor.

For your clearest example:
Driving without insurance is a crime in most states now. Think about that... We have to pay a third party company not controlled by the government a rate based on whatever algorithm the private for-profit business comes up with for the privlige of driving a vehicle that you own, and have been licensed and authorized by the state to drive.

I mean.. I am all for paying taxes and such... But I am expressly against being forced to pay a for profit business so that I can own and operate my vehicle..

Now if I am poor... This all becomes a trap. I most likely live with on street parking, meaning I have to keep the vehicle registered, because I most likely can't afford fines and the tow fee. But insurance is $100 a month.

So the poverty level is below $12.00 an hour. Let's pretend that is a full time job.

Right at poverty level you will make $480 gross. Take away an easy 20% in taxes and that is $390 at best take home. That is under $1160 a month.

Now.. Take away an average rent of $400 at the lowest end and that is $760 a month. Take away a $50 phone bill, because to get and keep a job, you need a phone, and you have $710 a month. Gas for your car? At least $100 a month. So now you have $610... Minus that insurance? $510... Do you have utilities to pay? Another $50 to $100. So at best you have $460... At the end of the month... To live and save on...

Now... Do all that at $10 dollars an hour. Do it at $8. Do it all at $3.75 an hour and pray you make some god-damn tips...

How much is health insurance? What the fuck do you do if you have a child?
All of these just regular and unnecessary hurdles for the poor... And then... Throw on top of that... A police force who is now actively and unabashedly in the business of revenue collection. So much so, that once a week, in my lower middle class neighborhood, I'll watch a cop drive down the street and check every license plate for any possible infractions. I mean... That isn't what we are paying cops for. Not at all. That should not be a function of our government. There is no court to challenge these fines in, proven time and time again. And no sympathy or exception made for financial situations. It is a massive scam.

Michael Keim

There is an expression down south that fits Sessions to a tee. It's "Redneck Peckerwood."

Dr. Timothy Leary

There is a new expression that fits him too. He's a "Trumpnik".

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