ALBANY, GA (WALB) - The United States Justice Department said Monday that it is seeing illegal enforcement of fines and fees around the country, against people accused of misdemeanors, quasi-criminal ordinance violations, or civil infractions.
The DOJ says that courts do not sentence defendants to jail in these cases, but levy fines against them instead. They say these fines are more about making money for the city or county where an infraction occurred, than about punishing breaches of the law.
The DOJ calls these "unlawful practices." It says people hit with these fines, when they have no way to pay them, face "escalating debt; repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment, despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape."
They say that not only are these tactics illegal, they fail to address public safety, are designed to make money, but also cast doubt on the impartiality of the courts, and destroy trust between local governments and their constituents.
Sam Brooke, deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Alabama said, "The Department of Justice took an important step today by reminding courts that they must be places of justice, not revenue generators. Far too often, municipalities use court fines and fees as a way to balance budgets – trapping the poor in a cycle of debt and incarceration. This creates a two-tiered, unequal system of justice: one for people who can pay immediately and another, far-harsher version for those who cannot."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society.