The ABA House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a set of guidelines Monday evening aimed at stopping incarceration of people solely because they can’t pay court fines and fees.
Robert Weiner, chair of the ABA Working Group on Building Public Trust in the American Justice System, moved Resolution 114 in the House. The resolution adopts the working group’s Ten Guidelines on Court Fines and Fees. The guidelines are provided to jurisdictions as a best-practices guide to avoiding creating debtors’ prisons in the ordinary course of administering justice. The working group that created them was a special project of outgoing ABA President Hilarie Bass.
More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that jurisdictions may not incarcerate people for debt stemming from inability to pay fines and fees, according to Robert Weiner, chair of the ABA committee that recommended the guidelines. “Far too many state and local legislators treat the justice system like an ATM, imposing exorbitant fines and fees for civil code violations, traffic tickets, misdemeanors, and felonies in order to fund the government,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center. “People who can’t immediately pay are trapped in a cycle of punishment and poverty they can rarely escape, hurting individuals, families and communities.” Jaime Hawk of the Washington State Bar Association said, “This criminalization of poverty must end.”
“And most of all, these guidelines vindicate a fundamental principle that poverty is not a crime,” said Weiner, who also chairs the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. “I urge you to adopt Resolution 114.”
The resolution attracted no opposition but several speakers in favor. One was Jaime Hawk of the Washington State Bar Association, which co-sponsored the resolution along with the King County Bar Association in Seattle as well as several other organizations.
“As a former state and federal defender, I have seen firsthand the injustices that routinely occur as our government seeks to cash in on those who can least afford to pay fines and fees,” Hawk said. “This criminalization of poverty must end, … and we, as the ABA, are lead[ing] the way.”
Resolution 114 passed easily.