Letter Calls For Restoring Access to Justice Office & “Reinvigorating Federal Government’s Role in Fines and Fees Reform”
Today, a broad coalition of leading civil rights, legal aid, and criminal justice reform advocacy organizations sent a letter to key White House and Justice Department officials with a list of recommended actions on fines and fees reform that should be taken or initiated in the first year of the Biden/Harris administration. The recommendations include:
- Restoring DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice, which was established in 2010 but shut down in 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
- Updating and re-issuing the 2016 “Dear Colleague” letter from the DOJ to every State Court Administrator and Chief Justice clarifying the legal framework that governs the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees.
- Supporting proposed legislation incentivizing states to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions and to provide funding to state & local public defenders.
President Biden’s campaign platform included fines and fees reform. While in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris co-sponsored the federal Driving for Opportunity Act, which would incentivize states to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. The bill was just re-introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senators Coons (D-DE) and Wicker (R-MS), with broad support from stakeholders across the political spectrum.
Following the 2008 Recession, state and local governments dramatically increased the number and amount of fines and fees imposed on people for everything from minor traffic and municipal code violations, to misdemeanors and felonies — and used draconian tactics to collect them. This regressive system of taxation is now entrenched in virtually every state, and in municipalities large and small across the country.
But over the past few years, dozens of U.S. states and localities have enacted a wide range of fines and fees reforms. Fifteen U.S. states from across the political spectrum — including seven states in 2020 alone — have recently passed reforms to end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. Hundreds of jurisdictions have also enacted measures to alleviate the harms of fines and fees in response to the Covid-19 economic crisis.
A first-of-its-kind nationwide public opinion poll of U.S. voters on fines and fees policies recently revealed broad, super-majority support for a wide range of reforms.
Today’s letter is signed by the following groups:
American Civil Liberties Union
Dream Corps JUSTICE
Equal Justice Under Law
Fair and Just Prosecution
Fines and Fees Justice Center
Juvenile Law Center
Legal Aid Justice Center
National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel
National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients)
National Legal Aid & Defender Association
North Carolina Justice Center
Office of the Ohio Public Defender
Ohio Poverty Law Center
Policy Advocacy Clinic at Berkeley Law
Record Clearance Project of San Jose State University
Texas Fair Defense Project
Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Washington Defender Association
Western Center on Law & Poverty