The United States Department of Justice is under fire from civil rights activists who are fed up with DOJ policies that issue fines and fees for minor offenses. These budget-driven policies can be crippling to financially challenged individuals.
On Wednesday, representatives from the DOJ held a meeting to discuss court practices that send poor people into an inescapable cycle of imprisonment and debt. Many people believe that the practice of issuing debts that can never realistically be repaid represents a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Previous investigations have revealed that many police departments raise money by hitting offenders with extremely high fines and fees, regardless of their ability to pay the fines. Many people who cannot afford the fines have been jailed. Additionally, the desire to avoid being locked up leads many people to pay excessively high rates of bail. These policies have been called into question for years, but change has often been slow to occur.
Civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis said, “The number one thing that DOJ could do is to start actually prosecuting people for these conspiracies to violate peoples’ constitutional rights. We often talk about how we’re a society based on the rule of law, but local government officials have, for years, been allowed to trample the law with impunity.”
Indeed, the federal government has generally sat back and watched as local officials throughout the country have been violating civil rights and unfairly oppressing people over minor offenses. Unless the federal government steps in, it is very likely that local authorities will continue to abuse the system.
The co-founder and executive director of ArchCity Defenders Thomas Harvey said, “I don’t think we can pretend like the players in the system are ignorant about the impact of the system. So it’s not a question of ‘Do they understand the Constitution?’ ‘Have they been given guidelines?’ It’s a question of holding them accountable to it, and DOJ can play a massive role in holding them accountable. I’m past the point of giving the benefit of doubt to a lot of the players in the system. I don’t think it’s reasonable to conclude that they didn’t know what’s going on.”
For now, changes need to be made. People are being locked away for their inability to pay, and that simply isn’t fair. Meanwhile, wealthier people can flaunt their cash and avoid similar punishments. It’s just another result of extreme income inequality in America.
Karakatsanis said, “Everybody knows that you can’t lock someone in a cage just because they can’t afford to pay, let alone develop an entire municipal government policy to do that to raise revenue. When you think about what they’re doing, it’s really grotesque. And that’s happening all over the country.”
At the present time, no policy changes have been announced.