The U.S. Department of Justice has sent a rare open letter to state judges asking them to stop practices that threaten jail time for people who cannot afford to pay fines.
The letter, sent Monday, is signed by Vanita Gupta, the the top prosecutor for the Justice Department, and Lisa Foster, who runs a division focused on helping poor people gain access to legal aid. At issue in the letter is a system in which courts threaten people who haven’t paid their fines––sometimes for traffic tickets, misdemeanors, or civil offenses––with jail time. Such practices, the letter said, makes courts seem as if they’re not concerned with “addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue. ” In many cases those practices can be unlawful, the letter said, and in jurisdictions that take federal money, they may also violate the Civil Rights Act when courts “unnecessarily impose disparate harm on the basis of race or national origin.”
The letter listed several practices that may violate a person’s due process, like jailing people because they can’t pay fines; making fines a prerequisite for a judicial hearing; and using bail or bond practices that leave poor people in jail only because they can’t afford to pay for their release.
The letter noted that these policies can force people into debt, land them in jail despite posing no risk to the community, and capture them “in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”