DOJ warns state and local courts about unconstitutional fines and fees

April 28, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently issued a revised “Dear Colleague” letter to state and local courts reminding them that their fines and fees practices could be harmful, discriminatory, and potentially in violation of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

The DOJ had first issued a letter in 2016, along with an Advisory on Levying Juvenile Fines and Fees, but both were revoked by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017.

The letter outlines seven constitutional principles and emphasizes the negative impacts of unjust fines and fees on low-income communities, people of color, and youth. The consequences include escalating debt, changes in immigration status, and loss of employment, driver’s licenses, voting rights, or homes. The DOJ also provides best practices and recommendations for courts to consider in order to improve their fines and fees practices.

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Fines and Fees Justice Center Co-Executive Directors, Joanna Weiss and Lisa Foster, stated, “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.”

The DOJ’s letter supports the efforts of impacted communities, activists, and advocates who have been pushing for reform in the criminal legal system. The letter serves as a roadmap for both advocates and litigators, highlighting unconstitutional and illegal practices.

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