The Justice Department is notifying state and municipal court systems in a letter being sent Monday that defendants who fail to pay fines or fees shouldn’t be jailed. The letter warns that such practices run afoul of the Constitution and harm trust within communities.

The letter clarifies that judges should consider alternatives to jail for poor defendants who don’t pay fines for minor infractions. It also states that defendants shouldn’t be locked up without a judge first establishing that a defendant who failed to pay did so willfully.

Among the practices Justice Department officials are trying to stop is the use of court fines and assessments mainly as a source of revenue by some municipalities. The new guidance comes amid concerns that some local courts are punishing poor people for their poverty by imposing crippling fines and fees that, when unpaid, can result in jail time.

The guidance is meant to address some of the most common practices that appear to go against federal laws, according to the letter. The practice of jailing debtors gained national attention after the Ferguson, Mo. riots in 2014. A Justice Department investigation, sparked by the police shooting of Michael Brown, found unconstitutional racially biased practices by the Ferguson police and city court system, which sometimes jailed people because they failed to pay traffic and other low-level fines. 

But the Ferguson case is far from alone and the new guidance and Collections & Credit Risk has regularly reported on cases nationwide of court systems putting people in jail for not paying debts owed to courts.

The Justice Department said it will provide $2.5 million in grants to help local jurisdictions test new ways to enforce court fines and assessments. 

Highlights of the new guidelines included in the Justice Department’s letter:

  • Court systems shouldn't jail people for nonpayment of fees and fines without first establishing that nonpayment is willful and not just the result of indigence.
  • Courts must consider alternatives to incarceration for indigent defendants who can't pay fines.
  • Arrest warrants and license suspensions shouldn't be used routinely as a way to coerce payment of court debt.
  • Bail and bonds regulations shouldn't cause poor defendants from remaining in jail solely because they can't afford to pay for release.


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