End Debtors’ Prison: DOJ Issues Guidelines Preventing Courts From Jailing People Over Court Fines

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(Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued guidelines to local courts to stop them from creating debtors’ prisons. The DOJ was concerned that high municipal court fines were keeping poor people in jail for minor offenses.

According to CNN, the DOJ raised the alarm about court fines after carrying out an extensive investigation of the Ferguson criminal justice system. The investigation came after the town was rocked by violent protests after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Black teenager Michael Brown.

The Atlanta Black Star reported the DOJ investigation showed mainly Black residents were being fined for minor offenses such as jaywalking. These fines were being used to supplement the city’s budget.

After the investigation, the DOJ came up with an agreement with Ferguson prohibiting the city from funding operations on revenue raised from fines.

“Any revenue generated by law enforcement actions will be incidental to the public safety purpose,” the agreement said.

However, according to CNN, the DOJ said that this practice is also being used by other municipalities. This practice is unconstitutional, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice, in a letter to chief justices and court administrators across the nation.

The new guidelines are “intended to address some of the most common practices that run afoul of the United States Constitution and/or other federal laws,” according to the letter.

CNN said being jailed for faillure to pay court fines can have a serious effect on the indigent. Apart from being deprived of their liberty, poor people also risk losing jobs and their homes while incarcerated.

The new DOJ guidelines also prevent courts from jailing people unless they could prove they “willfully” refused to pay fines and ordered courts to look at alternatives to jailing indigent people.

The Tennessean profiled Steven Gibbs, a construction worker who lives in a $200-week motel, to illustrate this problem. Gibbs fears going outside because he might be arrested for failing to pay court fines for driving on a suspended license.

Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold criticized the for-profit probation system, which often becomes a vicious cycle for poor people.

“It’s not supposed to be about the money,” said Arnold in an interview with The Tennessean. “The unfortunate part of our judicial system is once you get caught up in it, it’s like a rat wheel you can never get out of because of some of the fines and the probation.”

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