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Justice Department Urges Fairness in Court Policies Targeting the Poor

March 14, 2016

Officials at the Department of Justice are calling on chief justices and court administrators to root out unconstitutional policies, warning against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures.

In a letter that was sent on Monday morning, Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, Director of the Office for Access to Justice, chastised judges and court staff for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. The letter urged fairness in determining sentences, saying courts should not jail people who do not pay fines and fees levied by the court without first determining whether they are able to pay.

“Individuals may confront escalating debt; face 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,” Gupta and Foster wrote.

Terrell Marshall is currently working to protect the rights of poor people in a civil rights class action against Benton County, which was operating a modern-day debtors’ prison. Read more about the lawsuit here.