The Department of Justice Calls on Courts to Stop Violating Rights of Poor People

15th March, 2016
Southern Center for Human Rights

The Southern Center for Human Rights applauds the latest step by the Department of Justice to address inequality in the nation’s busiest courts.  In an open letter addressed “Dear Colleague” the DOJ has described seven practices employed by courts that lead to violations of due process, equal protection and the right to counsel, and suggested alternative practices when assessing fines and fees.  The practice of fining, jailing and demeaning poor people by placing additional burdens on them does not increase public safety, and it has become so accepted that courts no longer hide their true intent of generating revenue.  


The letter is the result of a collaboration with stakeholders to address the criminalization of poverty taking place across the country.  SCHR’s Senior Attorney Sarah Geraghty attended the two-day meeting held in Washington in December 2015 to share her experience.  Ms. Geraghty recently was the keynote speaker at the conference, Innocent Until Proven Poor, held at University of Michigan Law School and offered her observations based on SCHR’s litigation and advocacy to end the criminalization of poverty.  SCHR has been at the forefront of legal and legislative advocacy on behalf of people who are incarcerated, placed on probation, or arrested solely because they are poor, in violation of the Constitution. (See our work on debtor’s prisons.)    


With assistance of the SCHR, Governor Deal’s Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council drafted legislation signed into law in 2015 that substantially evens the playing field for poor people who were placed on probation simply in order to pay a court fine.  The law requires courts to consider alternatives to incarceration, including community service for failure to report to probation or failure to pay fines, statutory surcharges, or probation supervision fees.  The Department of Justice referred to the Georgia law as an example in its letter.  The complete recommendations are as follows:


(1) Courts must not incarcerate a person for nonpayment of fines or fees without first conducting an indigency determination and establishing that the failure to pay was willful; 


(2) Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants unable to pay fines and fees; 


(3) Courts must not condition access to a judicial hearing on the prepayment of fines or fees; 


(4) Courts must provide meaningful notice and, in appropriate cases, counsel, when enforcing fines and fees; 


(5) Courts must not use arrest warrants or license suspensions as a means of coercing the payment of court debt when individuals have not been afforded constitutionally adequate procedural protections; 


(6) Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release; and 


(7) Courts must safeguard against unconstitutional practices by court staff and private contractors.