We've discussed previously the troubling practice of some state and local courts using low-level offenses to generate fees, sometimes for the courts themselves and sometimes for for-profit entities that run court-related services. (See, for instance, here and here.)
Now the Justice Department is warning states that these practices are unconstitutional and must stop, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, such letters, issued rarely, "do not have the force of law, but they declare the federal government’s position and put local officials on notice about its priorities."
This week's DOJ letter:
echoes the conclusions of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Police Department and court in Ferguson, Mo. Investigators there concluded that the court was a moneymaking venture, not an independent branch of government. [Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Vanita] Gupta, who oversaw that investigation, has often cited Ferguson as a cautionary tale in her speeches, describing how fines for minor offenses like jaywalking pulled people into the criminal justice system and made it impossible to escape.
Read more here.
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The L.A. Times wrote a front page story of how the City of L.A. was making a lot of money by establishing huge fines , e. g. $400,for misdemeanors such as Jay walking. Then if the person is poor they establish a schedule to pay the fine. If the person has no money and can’t afford to keep up, penalties and fines go on top of the original “bail.”
At the end of the year or whatever limit was established the offender goes to jail. If the amount owed is a high amount he could now be a felon. All because of Jay walking.