Justice Department Issues Dear Colleague Letter to Courts Regarding Fines and Fees for Youth and Adults
Department of Justice, April 20, 2023
The Justice Department today issued a Dear Colleague Letter for state and local courts and juvenile justice agencies regarding the imposition and enforcement of fines and fees for adults and youth. The letter addresses common court-imposed fines and fees practices, and cautions against those practices that may be unlawful, unfairly penalize individuals who are unable to pay or otherwise have a discriminatory effect. The department provides this letter as part of its ongoing commitment to fairness, economic justice and combating the policies that disproportionately contribute to justice system involvement for low-income communities.
The letter highlights a number of key issues regarding fines and fees, such as the importance of conducting a meaningful ability-to-pay assessment before imposing adverse consequences for failure to pay, considering alternatives to fines and fees, guarding against excessive penalties and ensuring due process protections, including the assistance of counsel when appropriate.
The letter reminds court systems and other federal financial assistance recipients of their ongoing obligations not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex and disability; to provide meaningful access to individuals with limited English proficiency; and to ensure that appropriate recordkeeping can help identify and avoid potential violations of federal nondiscrimination laws. The department will also follow up on this letter by building a best practices guide, highlighting innovative work by states and court leaders in this area.
“Justice in the United States should not depend on one’s income or background,” said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta. “The Justice Department’s updated guidance addresses practices that disproportionately affect low-income communities and people of color, can trap individuals and their families in patterns of poverty and punishment and may violate the civil rights of adults and youth alike. Many jurisdictions have innovated to reduce reliance on fines and fees, and the Justice Department is building on that momentum to advance equal justice and public safety for all.”
“The unfettered imposition of fines and fees across the country has entrapped poor people, too many of whom are people of color, in a cycle of escalating debt, unnecessary incarceration and debilitating entanglement in our justice system,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “By confronting the harms that can result from aggressive imposition of fines and fees, we can bring an end to debtors’ prisons and promote equal justice under law for all. The Justice Department stands ready to help courts and juvenile justice agencies put in place reforms and practices that address public safety needs while protecting civil and constitutional rights.”
“Obligations to satisfy fines and fees have a devastating effect on adults and youth who are experiencing poverty and other economic adversities, trapping many in an unending cycle of poverty and debt,” said Director Rachel Rossi of the Office for Access to Justice. “These obligations can also interfere with full and fair access to our justice system. For these reasons, we must remain vigilant to prevent harmful practices that do not serve the interests of justice. This letter is an important step in that ongoing process.”
“Fees and fines practices in the criminal and juvenile justice systems impose the heaviest burden on those who are least able to pay, drawing them deeper into the justice system,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon of the Office of Justice Programs. “We will be working with jurisdictions across the country to end or limit these unfair practices, so that adults and youth in the justice system have the opportunity they need to move forward in their lives.”
In the coming weeks, the Bureau of Justice Assistance will also release a solicitation seeking a training and technical assistance provider to work with a select number of jurisdictions interested in understanding and reforming their fines and fees policies and practices. The ultimate goal is to help these jurisdictions reduce the use of unjust fines and fees and redirect the resources used in these systems into activities with a greater return on public safety.
The letter is grounded in constitutional principles, including the Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as federal nondiscrimination statutes, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VI) and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Safe Streets Act). A copy of today’s letter can be found here. Additional information about the Civil Rights Division’s work to uphold and protect civil and constitutional rights is available online at www.justice.gov/crt. Complaints about discriminatory practices may be reported to the Civil Rights Division through its internet reporting portal at civilrights.justice.gov.