DOJ Suing Ferguson, Warns Against Jailing The Poor

On Monday, the DOJ issued new guidelines to state and municipal court systems that aim to prevent poor people from being jailed because they can not afford to pay fines for minor legal infractions. A letter from the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, Vanita Gupta, and the director of the Office for Access to Justice, Lisa Foster, read:

“[These guidelines are] intended to address some of the most common practices that run afoul of the United States constitution and/or other federal laws.”

The DOJ is paying close attention to this issue after the riots of Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing federal investigation of the city’s justice system. The investigation concluded that Ferguson’s justice system is broken at every level.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced on Wednesday, February 10 that the Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Ferguson. The lawsuit follows an agreement that was rejected by Ferguson that would have overhauled the city’s criminal justice system.

Ferguson is not alone in this issue; states and municipalities around the country use fines for minor infractions, which grow quickly if not paid, as a major source of revenue. Cities use warrants and arrests in an effort to collect these fines. Poor defendants are being jailed and are losing their homes and jobs.

The DOJ also appropriated $2.5 million in grants to help local jurisdictions find new ways to enforce and collect court fines.

Some of the new key guidelines include the following caveats: court systems shouldn’t jail people for nonpayment before proving that nonpayment is willful; courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants who are unable to pay fines; arrests and license suspensions shouldn’t be used regularly to collect payment of court fines; and bail and bonds regulations shouldn’t cause poor defendant to remain in jail because they can not afford release.

The DOJ is eager to stop the cycle of poverty that is perpetuated by jailing indigents with minor infractions for their inability to pay court fines.

Featured image via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license.