The Justice Department on Monday urged state judges nationwide to end unconstitutional policies of jailing low-income people as a way to collect fines and debt.
The letter to chief judges and court administrators said courthouses are not money-making ventures and should not use arrest warrants to collect fees, the New York Times reports.
The practice of locking poor people up creates a cycle of fines, debt and jail, the letter said.
“This unconstitutional practice is often framed as a routine administrative matter,” Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, wrote. “For example, a motorist who is arrested for driving with a suspended license may be told that the penalty for the citation is $300 and that a court date will be scheduled only upon the completion of a $300 payment.”
Some courts lock people up on minor offenses and won’t release the defendants until their fines are paid.
“When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor,” Lynch said at the White House in December. “Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk — only because they are poor. They don’t have money to get out of jail, and they certainly don’t have money to flee anywhere. Other people who do have the means can avoid the system setting inequality in place from the beginning.”