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U.S. Reminds the Courts, it is not Against the Law to be Poor

March 31, 2016
Plain English Version


Most people agree it is hard to be poor. There is never enough money. Rent, electric bills and car payments pile up. It is stressful.

Many local courts have a policy of jailing people because they did not pay a fine or put up bail.  Why would these courts do this? They do it because it helps pay for the courts and police.

The U.S. Justice Department is reminding local governments that this is against the law. The U.S. says the courts have to inquire about whether defendants have money. If they do not, the court cannot jail them for non-payment of a fine or bail. Experts call it “punishing a person for his poverty.” The U.S. Supreme Court says this practice violates the 14th Amendment. The Amendment calls for equal protection.

There were disturbances in Ferguson, Mo. last year over the death of an unarmed man shot by a policeman. The Justice Department reviewed how the town enforces its laws.

It found that the Ferguson court was a moneymaking venture. It issued fines for things like jaywalking. People paid or went to jail. When they were in jail, they often lost their jobs. It pulled people into the criminal justice system. Getting out of it is hard.

The federal government has now issued guidelines to states and local governments. They explain what courts can and cannot do when collecting fines. The most important guideline is not to put people in jail because they are too poor to pay the fine or bail.

The guidelines call for other measures. The court can reduce the amount of the fine. It can extend the time for payment. It can use community service or classes on public safety as alternatives to money.

The guidelines are not law. They do tell court systems how to follow the law.

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