By Miriam Raftery
December 26, 2017 (Washington D.C.) – U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded on Obama-administration guideline that advised local courts against imposing excessive fines and fees on poor people.
The Obama administration issued that guideline in response to findings after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Federal investigators discovered that the city of Ferguson had a system that trapped poor people into a cycle of rising fines and fees for even minor infractions, jailing people repeatedly when they could not afford to pay off such debts.
Peter Edelman, faculty director of Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, is also the author of a book titled “Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America.” In an interview on National Public Radio, Edelman called Attorney General Session’s action “a terrible decision” that he predicts will hurt millions of people across the nation.”
What happened in Ferguson was also found to be happening in many cities across the nation, with local jurisdictions incarcerating poor people who couldn’t afford to pay fines that added up over time. Even a small infraction, such as not mowing a lawn, could add up to owing the local government a thousand dollars or more.
A common problem is municipalities taking away driver’s licenses when poor people can’t pay for certain fees, such as vehicle registration. But that leaves people with no legal way to drive to work, take kids to school or family members to the doctor. If caught driving on a suspended license, residents could be arrested again and jailed, with fines growing so high that they could never escape the cycle of debt.
In some cities, judges, prosecutors and even public defenders are paid with funds raised from such systems, creating what Edelman calls a “built-in conflict of interest.”
The Obama administration, in its 2016 letter sent to court officials across the nation, urged courts to consider alternatives to jail for poor people who can’t pay fines or fees, to assure that the justice system operated fairly and respected the Constitutional rights of the poor.
In rolling back that action, along with numerous others, Sessions has said he was ending the “long standing abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter on a web page.” He did not give a specific reason for eliminating the guideline against excessive fines for poor defendants, an action taken on recommendation of a Justice Department task force authorized through an executive order issued by President Donald Trump.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, denounced the decision by Sessions and called the system of jailing poor people who can’t possibly pay off huge fines “a perverse, profit-based framework that helps spin the revolving door of the criminal justice system,” CNN reports.