US Civil Rights Commission Says High Risk of Discrimination in City Court Fees and Fines

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Civil Rights Commission
Judge holding gavel in courtroom

NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on Thursday said the Justice Department should continue an Obama administration effort to rein in abuses in the use of court fees and fines by municipalities because it can have a discriminatory impact on poor minorities.

The commission issued a report saying that poor people and minorities are sometimes targeted by these practices, which can include fines for violations, fees for court administrative costs and fine surcharges, as well as late-payment charges and interest that can take the total amount to be paid into the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Not being able to pay can lead to issues with credit scores, losing driver’s licenses, even jail time.

The report said the use of all these fines and fees can undermine public confidence in the judicial system, and its review “of the existing data and research also shows that the impacts of these practices have been borne by communities of color, along with the poor. Municipalities that rely heavily on revenue from fines and fees have a higher than average percentage of African American and Latino populations relative to the demographics of the median municipality.”

The commission urged that efforts started in the Justice Department in the Obama administration should continue in the Trump administration.

It cited the Justice Department’s March 2015 report on the Ferguson, Missouri, city government that concluded the municipal court issued exorbitant fines for small offenses and issued arrest warrants for residents who didn’t settle their debts. It also pointed to letters the Justice Department has sent to states and localities regarding best practices for municipal courts.

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