Justice Department Sets Its Sights on Excessive Municipal Fines

When cities start soaking low-income residents for cash, it’s hard not to get attention.

A March 14 article in The New York Times noted how such cases have created some bipartisan alignment, referencing IJ’s work in Pagedale, Missouri.

“The issue has helped forge alliances between liberal civil rights groups and conservative organizations. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, spoke last year at a White House summit meeting on poverty and incarceration. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, has brought lawsuits accusing cities of using court fines to raise revenue.”

The article focused on the U.S. Justice Department’s effort to bring attention to excessive municipal fines, which can often lead to cycles of poverty or incarceration.

“In a letter to chief judges and court administrators, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, and Lisa Foster, who leads a program on court access, warned against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures. It chastised judges and court staff members for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. Such policies, the letter said, made it more likely that poor people would be arrested, jailed and fined anew — all for being unable to pay in the first place.”

Back in November, IJ filed a class action lawsuit against the city of Pagedale for frequently fining residents over such things as hanging mismatched curtains in their windows or having a barbeque in front of a house.

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