In addition to his “War on Cannabis,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently revealed that he is also in favor of a “War on Poverty,” when he rescinded a legal guidance document that was meant to end illegal debtors’ prisons.
While debtors’ prisons are labeled as institutions to keep people from failing to pay fines and debts, they have been used to take advantage of impoverished, low-income individuals. A simple traffic ticket can turn into months in prison, which results in even greater fines. As defined by the American Civil Liberties Union:
“Nearly two centuries ago, the United States formally abolished the incarceration of people who failed to pay off debts. Yet, recent years have witnessed the rise of modern-day debtors’ prisons—the arrest and jailing of poor people for failure to pay legal debts they can never hope to afford, through criminal justice procedures that violate their most basic rights.”
The legal guidance rescinded by Sessions was one that was implemented by the Department of Justice in 2016. It states that courts are required to follow constitutional principles and to prohibit the imprisonment of poor individuals because they cannot pay court fines and fees.
Sessions rescinded the March 2016 “Dear Colleague Letter on Enforcement of Fines and Fees” last week, along with 25 other legal documents dating back to 1975. In a statement, he claimed that he was “ending 25 examples of improper or unnecessary guidance documents” that had been identified by a DOJ task force:
“Last month, I ended the longstanding abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter or posting a web page. Congress has provided for a regulatory process in statute, and we are going to follow it. This is good government and prevents confusing the public with improper and wrong advice. Therefore, any guidance that is outdated, used to circumvent the regulatory process, or that improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect. That is why today, we are ending 25 examples of improper or unnecessary guidance documents identified by our Regulatory Reform Task Force led by our Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. We will continue to look for other examples to rescind, and we will uphold the rule of law.”
The guidance was originally put in place after a series of reports and lawsuits from the ACLU revealed that state and local courts were increasingly offsetting budget deficits by charging additional fees for “public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation and probation supervision,” and that the courts were using “aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses.”
As a result, the courts were then jailing people who fell behind on their payments, without holding a hearing to determine if the individual was able to pay the fines, or offering alternatives such as community service.
The ACLU argued that because the courts were imprisoning an individual based on the fact that he or she could not pay court-imposed fines or fees, the court was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process and equal protection under the law.
In one case, a man undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer in Sherwood, Arkansas, spent 90 days in jail and ended up owing a court more than $3,000 after he wrote a series of bad checks for small amounts ranging from $5 to $41, and his medical condition prevented him from earning money to pay for the fines associated with the checks.
Another case involved a veteran battling homelessness in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who spent 22 days in jail because he showed up to court with $25 out of the $50 the judge wanted him to pay as the first installment for the $2,600 he owed in restitution, fines and court fees after he was found intoxicated, on the roof of a building.
Ultimately, the only ones who benefit from debtors’ prisons are the prisons themselves, and the people who suffer are the ones who find themselves facing jail time on top of the inflated fees and fines they already cannot afford to pay.