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Justice Department launches effort to help make sure fines are fair

The Justice Department on Monday pledged $2.5 million to help state judges and court administrators ensure their systems for levying fines and fees do not violate the rights of poor defendants.

The money, along with a separate letter offering advice on how to more fairly levy fines and fees, comes a year after the department concluded that the municipal court in Ferguson, Mo., the location of a 2014 fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, was more focused more on raising revenue through fines and fees than using such tools to improve public safety.

Department officials noted in the letter that such practices have profound consequences and can damage the faith residents have in their courts and police. Defendants can face escalating debts, be jailed for nonpayment “despite posing no danger to the community” and risk becoming “trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape,” according to the letter by Vanita Gupta and Lisa Foster, two top Justice Department officials.

Gupta, the department’s top civil rights lawyer, and Foster, the director of a program designed to improve the judicial system, urged courts to take steps to ensure they are treating defendants fairly and legally.

For example, they wrote, judges should not incarcerate a defendant for the nonpayment of fines or fees without first determining whether the person was too poor to pay. Courts should also consider alternatives to incarceration, and judges should not use arrest warrants or license suspensions to coerce people to pay court debts, they wrote.

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The letter comes in response to requests by judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, advocates and lawmakers who met with Justice Department officials in December to discuss how fines and fees are assessed, and to find ways to make sure they are more fairly administered.

The attention to fines and fees stemmed, in part, from the Justice Department investigation into the town, police force and municipal court of Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. In August 2014, Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot to death in by a white Ferguson police officer. That shooting and other deaths of African American residents at the hands of police have sparked unrest and protests, particularly in communities already angry at how they are policed and served by the courts.

The Justice Department determined that no criminal charges were warranted against the Ferguson officer, Darren Wilson. However, it found that Ferguson’s police force and its municipals courts routinely violated the rights of residents, particularly those who were poor and black, by focusing so heavily on raising revenues through fines and fees.

Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said in December that Ferguson’s practices were “shameful and unacceptable” and turned “the justice system into a for-profit enterprise at the expense of public safety.”

“Too many of our citizens are simply in jail because they don’t have the money to get out,” Lynch said. “We’ve outlawed usury. We’ve outlawed debtors prisons. We cannot cloak it in the language of fines and fees and make it right.”

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