WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- The Department of Justice on Monday pledged $2.5 million for efforts aimed at preventing local courts in the United States from overcharging poor defendants with fines and fees.
The agency announced it was sending a letter Monday morning to courts in all 50 states, calling on judges and court administrators nationwide to eliminate what it says are unconstitutional policies that have kept poor people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail, and advising how to properly levy fines and fees.
The letter was penned by Vanita Gupta, head of the agency's Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice.
"Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape," Gupta and Foster write. "Furthermore, in addition to being unlawful, to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents."
The $2.5 million in grant funding is proposed for localities with plans to "test strategies to restructure the assessment and enforcement of fines and fees." The funding and letter come a year after the Justice Department concluded that the Ferguson, Mo., police department and court system ran a moneymaking fine and fee program that appeared to disproportionately target African-Americans.
Last year's Justice Departments report on Ferguson said African-Americans make up about 67 percent of the city's population but account for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of citations, 93 percent of arrests and 88 percent of cases in which use of force was used.
Black drivers in Ferguson were also twice as likely as white drivers to be searched but less likely found to be in possession of drugs or guns.