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DOJ: state courts should stop jailing defendants for failure to pay fines

[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] on Monday urged state court systems to stop using procedural routines and hefty fines to profit off poor defendants [press release]. DOJ officials Vanita Gupta and Lisa Foster informed [LAT report] chief judges and court administrators via letter [text, PDF] that courts should be mindful of defendants trapped in a "cycle of poverty" and unfairly victimized for their inability to pay court debts. Gupta and Foster warned against using arrest warrants, license suspensions and incarceration to punish the poor and noted that prisons are crowded with inmates who are detained for their inability to pay bail rather than their threat to society. Though the DOJ letters do not have the power of law [NYT report], they recommend that courts investigate defendants' financial situations when implementing criminal procedures. The DOJ announced that it will devote $2.5 million to encourage states to reform their criminal court systems and address the concerns of the poor.

As the DOJ calls for reform in state courts, the treatment of prisoners and prison reform [JURIST podcast] has been a matter of ongoing concern in the US. Last month the Supreme Court of California ruled [JURIST report] that Governor Jerry Brown can put his plan to ease prison overcrowding on the ballot this November. In January the US Supreme Court ruled that a landmark decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles should apply retroactively [JURIST report]. In August the Department of Justice reached a settlement [JURIST report] with Los Angeles prisons on mentally ill inmate care. In May Human Rights Watch released [JURIST report] a report stating that mentally disabled prisoners experience "unnecessary, excessive, and even malicious force" at the hands of prison staff across the US. A federal court in February 2015 approved [JURIST report] a settlement agreement between the Arizona Department of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union in a class action lawsuit over the health care system within Arizona prisons. Also last February rights group Equal Justice Under Law filed suit [JURIST report] against the cities of Ferguson and Jennings, Missouri, for their practice of jailing citizens who fail to pay debts owed to the city for minor offenses and traffic tickets.

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