Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reembraced the use of debtor's prisons for those who cannot afford court fees, fines or costs.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions retracted an Obama-era guidance to state courts that was meant to end debtors’ prisons, where people who are too poor to pay fines are sent. This practice is blatantly unconstitutional, and the guidance had helped jump-start reform around the country. Its withdrawal is the latest sign that the federal government is retreating from protecting civil rights for the most vulnerable among us.
Municipalities often use their 'justice' systems as a means of unfairly collecting revenues. Ferguson, Missouri was notable for this type of behavior.
Ferguson used its criminal justice system as a for-profit enterprise, extracting millions from its poorest citizens. Internal emails revealed the head of finance directing policing strategy to maximize revenue rather than ensure public safety. Officers told us they were pressured to issue as many tickets as possible. Even the local judge was in on it, imposing penalties of $302 for jaywalking and $531 for allowing weeds to grow in one’s yard.
Sessions' choice to reauthorize the use of debtors prisons comes in the context of his Justice Department pulling 16 guidance documents in relation to civil rights. Sessions has already pulled 25 guidance documents in total. Guidance documents are meant to teach best practices to legal practitioners, communities, and law enforcement.
The push to abolish debtors’ prisons will continue, as community advocates and local officials press on. It would be preferable, of course, for the federal government to fulfill its role as a leading protector of basic constitutional rights. Unfortunately, Mr. Sessions has made clear that under his leadership it will not.