Justice Dept. to states: Stop using courts as money makers | Arkansas Blog

Monday, March 14, 2016

Justice Dept. to states: Stop using courts as money makers

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2016 at 7:18 AM

The New York Times reports on a federal Justice Department call to state courts to root out unconstitutional policies, such as excessive fines, that hurt poor people.

In a letter to chief judges and court administrators, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, and Lisa Foster, who leads a program on court access, warned against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures. It chastised judges and court staff members for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. Such policies, the letter said, made it more likely that poor people would be arrested, jailed and fined anew — all for being unable to pay in the first place.
Arkansas is rife with practices that use the courts as money-making ventures. The practices may be legal, but it makes them no less onerous on the poor. Currently under challenge in in federal court, to name one example from Arka sas, is the requirement of fee payment on the front end to appeal a misdemeanor conviction from a municipal-level court to circuit court, where a jury trial can be held. The legal argument is that the required fee practically nullifies the constitutional right to a jury trial.

The Justice Department focused on high fines.

Ms. Gupta said that in some cities, hefty fines served as a sort of bureaucratic cover charge for the right to seek justice. People cannot even start the process of defending themselves until they have settled their debts.

“This unconstitutional practice is often framed as a routine administrative matter,” Ms. Gupta wrote. “For example, a motorist who is arrested for driving with a suspended license may be told that the penalty for the citation is $300 and that a court date will be scheduled only upon the completion of a $300 payment.”
Suspending licenses, of course, makes it harder for people to get to work to make the money to pay fines.

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