FFJC Statement: DOJ’s Latest Letter On Fines and Fees Officially “Puts State and Local Courts on Notice”

Today, the United States Department of Justice issued a revised and updated “Dear Colleague” letter, advising state and local courts that their fines and fees practices are profoundly harmful and may violate the United States Constitution and federal law.

Statement from Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Executive Directors, Joanna Weiss and Lisa Foster:

“The key takeaway for policymakers in  the DOJ’s letter is that fines and fees deprive people of their ability to support themselves and their families, undermine public safety, are inherently discriminatory, and an irresponsible and unreliable source of revenue.

All across the country, impacted communities, activists, and advocates  have been challenging the fines and fees imposed in the criminal legal system and urging policy makers to enact reform. The Department of Justice’s voice has been missing from this ongoing conversation, but today’s letter puts state and local courts on notice that they need to end unconstitutional and illegal practices, and that the Justice Department is watching.

The letter is a roadmap for advocates and litigators, highlighting a plethora of illegal and unconstitutional practices – and directed not only to courts, but also to prosecutors, probation officers, and police. Advocates can take the Department’s letter to their legislators to demonstrate why fees – for both youth and adults – should be eliminated, fines should never exceed a person’s ability to pay, and draconian collection practices need to stop.  For litigators, the letter is a guide for suing jurisdictions that continue to jail people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees,  deny them access to courts, counsel, or diversion programs or engage in discriminatory ticketing practices.

Fines and fees are entrenched in our legal system. It will take the sustained effort of impacted individuals, communities, advocates, policy makers  — and the Department of Justice – to end the unjust imposition and collection of fines and fees.”