For a long time courts throughout the country have taken pride in the amount of fines and fee revenue collected. The National Center for State Courts’ Courtools #7 identified collection of monetary penalties as a core performance measure of trial courts. Yet many have known — and the situation in the Ferguson Missouri court illustrated — that there is a dark side to the fines and fees courts have become increasingly dependent upon.
Constitutional issues were ignored and fairness to poor people was not always paramount. Now there is a new wave of concern which is illustrated by a story in today’s issue of The New York Times, which begins:
The Justice Department on Monday called on state judges across the country to root out unconstitutional policies that have locked poor people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail. It was the Obama administration’s latest effort to take its civil rights agenda to the states, which have become a frontier in the fight over the rights of the poor and the disabled, the transgender and the homeless. In a letter to chief judges and court administrators, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, and Lisa Foster, who leads a program on court access, warned against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures. It chastised judges and court staff members for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. Such policies, the letter said, made it more likely that poor people would be arrested, jailed and fined anew — all for being unable to pay in the first place.
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