This week, there have been significant developments in the effort to prevent cities and states from incarcerating people simply because they are unable to pay court fines and fees.
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reached a settlement in its lawsuit filed against the City of Biloxi, Mississippi. The suit argued that poor defendants were arrested and jailed without court hearings and were told they could only avoid jail time by paying fines and fees. ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury explained that “the sweeping reforms adopted by Biloxi include the elimination of for-profit probation companies from the collections process and the adoption of detailed new court procedures, including a ‘bench card’ to guide judges on how to avoid jailing people who are too poor to pay. Biloxi has also established a full-time public defender’s office to protect indigent people’s right to counsel, and it also will make payment plans, community service, and a host of other alternatives to jail available for those who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees.”
The settlement was reached one day after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter to state and local officials that identifies “the most common [fine and fee] practices that run afoul of the United States Constitution.” The letter outlines alternative actions that courts can take to ensure that Americans’ legal rights are protected. The U.S. Department of Justice also announced a package of resources that includes grant funding for jurisdictions that want to test strategies to restructure the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees.
The Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) is one of the leading funders of research into monetary penalties and their impact. We are currently supporting seven projects including the ACLU's litigation efforts as part of a broader strategy to deepen the field’s understanding of court-imposed monetary sanctions and their impacts, and to develop, support, and coordinate litigation to combat illegal incarceration on the basis of poverty.
We welcome increased attention to this problem. Constitutional rights apply equally to all Americans, regardless of income – and no one should go to jail simply because they are too poor to pay a fine. We are encouraged that the U.S. Department of Justice is taking this issue so seriously and is providing guidance to jurisdictions that are looking to reform these practices.