During the holiday season, many of us think about what we can do to help people struggling with poverty. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, on the other hand, decided just before Christmas to rescind a guidance meant to protect low-income Americans.
The 2016 guidance, issued by former President Obama’s Justice Department, urged state and local courts nationwide to abide by constitutional principles prohibiting the jailing of poor people who cannot afford to pay court fines and fees. Jeff Sessions’ action makes clear that he and his Justice Department are unconcerned by courts trampling on the rights of poor people.
The Obama Justice Department issued the 2016 letter after reports and lawsuits by the ACLU and other groups revealed how modern-day debtors’ prisons function in more than a dozen states, despite the fact that the U.S. two centuries ago formally outlawed jailing people simply because they have unpaid debts.
These efforts revealed that poor people were being locked up in Georgia, Washington, Mississippi, and elsewhere without court hearings or legal representation when they could not pay fines and fees for traffic tickets or other civil infractions or criminal offenses. These efforts also show that modern-day debtors’ prisons result from state laws allowing or requiring the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid court fines or fees without first requiring confirmation that the person could actually pay.
Modern-day debtors’ prisons received unprecedented national attention in 2015 when the Justice Department issued a 185-page report in its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department after the shooting of teenager Michael Brown. It documented how Ferguson police sought to advance the “City’s focus on revenue rather than … public safety needs,” leading to the routine incarceration of poor people to elicit court fine and fee payments, which raised due process concerns and reflected racial bias.