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DOJ sends letter urging judges to watch out for discriminatory fees

The Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to state, local and juvenile courts on Thursday, warning judges to watch out for fees and fines that could unfairly burden low-income individuals and minors.

DOJ officials said in the “Dear Colleague” letter that excessive fees and fines could violate the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments and suggested that judges consider individuals’ economic circumstances and ability to pay when determining fees, as well as punishments for nonpayment.

“Imposing and enforcing fines and fees on individuals who cannot afford to pay them has been shown to cause profound harm,” the letter said, adding that individuals that confront escalating debt often “face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment of fines and fees; experience extended periods of probation and parole; are subjected to changes in immigration status; and lose their employment, driver’s license, voting rights, or home.”

“This practice far too often traps individuals and their families in a cycle of poverty and punishment that can be nearly impossible to escape,” the agency added.

The department noted that unjust fees tend to disproportionately impact low-income communities and people of color and urged courts to consider whether required payments have disproportionate effects based on race or other characteristics, “even in the absence of intentional discrimination.”

The push against discriminatory fines gained traction in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, according to The New York Times. Brown, a Black teenager, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. 

A 2015 DOJ investigation in the wake of the shooting found that the disproportionate impact of Ferguson’s fines and fees on Black residents constituted intentional discrimination.

Source: The Hill

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