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A 67-year-old woman living on a fixed income in Ferguson, Missouri was jailed recently for failing to make payments on a trash-removal citation, according to findings in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department released earlier this year.

The court hit the elderly woman with fines totaling $1,000, which she struggled to pay in $100 monthly installments, the report says. She lived under the constant threat of being jailed and missing a payment.

She represents just one example in the probe that found Ferguson’s courts imposed excessive fines and routinely ordered the arrest of low-income residents when they failed to make payments they already could not afford.

Problems raised in Missouri and other areas of our country are why the White House and DOJ on Wednesday and Thursday convened a meeting of advocates, researchers, and criminal justice practitioners to discuss ways for more equitable alternatives to these problematic systems for fines, fees, and fixed bail, DOJ Deputy Attorney General Sally Quillian Yates said in a prepared statement.

Criminal justice reform has been the centerpiece of President Barack Obama‘s second-term in office. Earlier this year, he became the first sitting president to visit a prison and has been vocal about overhauling police departments to reduce brutality complaints in communities of color.

During the two-day event, state officials, judges, and many others shared “ideas for creating a system driven not by profit, but by a commitment to fair and constitutional practices,” Yates said in the statement.

Via the Department of Justice:

There is no principle underlying our criminal justice system more essential than that we must treat equally the wealthy and the poor. As former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said in 1962, “If justice is priced in the market place, individual liberty will be curtailed and respect for law diminished.”

To the vast majority of Americans, this concept is a given; it’s innate to being American. This country banned debtors’ prisons under federal law back in 1833. In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a maximum prison term could not be extended because a defendant failed to pay court costs or fines. A year later, those same justices ruled that a defendant may not be jailed solely because he or she is too poor to pay a fine. Again, in 1983, in a case called Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Constitution does not permit “punishing a person for his poverty.” 

Despite these longstanding ideals and principles, in some places around our country, fines are still being imposed and people are still being incarcerated for nonpayment without a judge ever making the basic required inquiry — “Can this person afford to pay?” In these places, court fines, fees and other financial obligations can lead to unnecessary incarceration, trap people in a cycle of poverty, and undermine the faith in the justice system that is so critical to public safety. 

The DOJ will publish a report based on recommendations from the meeting, suggesting steps that lawmakers, policymakers, and legislators can take to reform the criminal justice system.

We applaud the Obama administration for continuing to work to uproot this deep-seated problem.



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White House Tackles “Cycle Of Incarceration: Prison, Debt, & Bail Practice”  was originally published on