U.S. News

Justice Department urges courts to avoid illegal fine and fee policies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Monday called on state and local courts to ensure their procedures for imposing fines and fees are not violating people’s constitutional rights.

In an open letter, the department outlined seven constitutional practices for courts to follow, including not punishing individuals for accidentally failing to pay fines, not using bail or bond practices that keep defendants in prison “solely because they cannot pay for their release,” and not denying them due process when enforcing payments.

Abusive municipal fines and fees practices have drawn increasing attention nationwide since they were part of the pattern of discrimination the Justice Department’s civil rights division identified in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

Ferguson became a flashpoint for U.S. racial tensions after the 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.

The Justice Department on Monday also announced $2.5 million in federal grants for state, local and tribal jurisdictions that want to try restructuring how they assess and enforce fines and fees.

“The consequences of the criminalization of poverty are not only harmful - they are far-reaching. They not only affect an individual’s ability to support their family, but also contribute to an erosion of our faith in government,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

Vanita Gupta, head of the department’s civil rights division, said last month that the problem of excessive fines and fees “extends well beyond Ferguson. In fact, the problem exists in many of the country’s 6,500 municipal courts,” Gupta said at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Justice Department in January proposed a settlement with Ferguson that would require the city to change its municipal code, including sections that impose prison time for failure to pay certain fines and an ordinance used against individuals who do not comply with police orders.

When the Ferguson City Council voted last month to accept the settlement with several amendments, citing cost concerns, the Justice Department sued the city to enforce the deal without revisions.

If the council votes to reconsider the agreement and then approves it, the Justice Department’s lawsuit against the city will be resolved.

Reporting by Julia Harte; Editing by Peter Cooney