WASHINGTON — The Justice Department is stepping up pressure on state and local judges to reduce fines and fees charged in their courts, practices that leave the poor, juvenile offenders and people of color disproportionately saddled with debt.
Many localities around the country use revenue from fines and the surcharges imposed by judges in criminal, civil and juvenile court to pay for court expenses, even judge’s salaries, or to supplement state or local government budgets.
Officials across the political spectrum have long acknowledged that the practice is damaging and discriminatory, with wide-ranging consequences in conservative and liberal states alike.
In Florida, a person can lose their driver’s license or voter registration for failing to pay their bills. In Texas, indigent defenders sometimes opt for jail time to zero out their balances. In California, surcharges tacked onto some car-related infractions can add up to double or triple the amount of the original penalty, creating a spiral of debt that can destroy a person’s credit rating, and with it, access to employment or a lease.
The Justice Department’s third-highest-ranking official, Vanita Gupta, informed local judges and juvenile courts on Thursday that imposing fines and fees without accounting for a person’s financial status violated constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.
Doing so “may erode trust between local governments and their constituents, increase recidivism, undermine rehabilitation and successful re-entry, and generate little or no net revenue,” Ms. Gupta, the associate attorney general, wrote in a letter.
To Americans able to pay their debt to government agencies, such penalties, which can range from a few dollars to hundreds, are a minor nuisance. To the poor and to new immigrants, it can lead to catastrophe, “including escalating debt, being subjected to changes in immigration status, and loss of one’s employment, driver’s license, voting rights, or home, among others,” Ms. Gupta added.
The original impetus for the change was the 2014 shooting of a Black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. A Justice Department investigation did not result in federal charges against the officer involved. But a subsequent investigation by the department into systemic discrimination found that a quarter of the city’s municipal budget was derived from fines and fees leveled disproportionately against Black residents.
The policy Ms. Gupta outlined was first enacted during the Obama administration, when she led the Justice Department’s civil rights division. It was revoked under Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017, but a handful of states, including several controlled by Republicans, have taken steps to reduce the practice.
The federal government has limited power to enforce such a directive. It could sue states that refuse to make good-faith efforts to address the issue. It could also deny funding to court systems that do not comply, although that possibility is remote, according to Justice Department officials.
But advocates for overhaul consider the changes Ms. Gupta described a major step that will fortify bipartisan efforts in state legislatures to roll back fines and fees, while providing a template for lawsuits.
“It helps litigators sue jurisdictions engaged in unconstitutional and illegal conduct and gives advocates and policymakers a strong argument when they pursue legislative action,” said Lisa Foster, a former Justice Department official who now works for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonpartisan advocacy organization in Washington. “And it gives judges and courts a road map for reform.”
Nathan L. Hecht, the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, has long pushed to eliminate the fee system in his state. He has argued that it not only penalizes poverty but ultimately hurts the state by pushing marginal offenders onto the fringes of society and deeper into the criminal justice system.
“You get a guy who appears in court after running a stop sign — that’s a $200 fine with a $200 court fee — and he just can’t pay,” he said.
“The judge then says, ‘You could just go to jail for a couple of days instead of paying that off,’” he added. “And that’s what the guy does.”
The defendant is not the only one making a sacrifice. The cost of housing a prisoner for a single night in the system is about $800, so the total cost for state and local governments is often many times greater than the penalties that need to be paid.
“It makes no sense,” Judge Hecht added. “We’re cutting off our nose to spite our face.”