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Jeff Sessions gives OK for towns like Ferguson to hit the poor with heavy fines

Sessions revoked 25 guidance memos, part of a bigger campaign against regulatory rules

by Taylor Dolven
Dec 22 2017, 2:00pm

President Trump’s Justice Department took another civil rights U-turn Thursday by rescinding a 2016 guideline that advised courts against slapping poor people with large and unnecessary fines and fees.

The fines and fees guidance is one of 25 that the Justice Department revoked Thursday, including rules for incorporating people with disabilities into state programs and guidelines about how to identify citizen status discrimination. The move is part of a larger rebuke of executive regulatory rules; Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the past guidances an “abuse.”

“Last month, I ended the longstanding abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter or posting a web page,” Sessions said in a statement. “Congress has provided for a regulatory process in statute, and we are going to follow it. This is good government and prevents confusing the public with improper and wrong advice.”

The fines and fees guidance, put in place in March 2016 by Vanita Gupta, former head of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, former director of the Office for Access to Justice, was meant to prevent municipalities from issuing tickets and excessive fees to raise city revenue. The guidance to courts in all 50 states came one year after the Justice Department published its scathing report after an investigation into fines and fees abuse in Ferguson, Missouri. That report found a "pattern and practice" of city officials repeatedly targeting black people with tickets for small infractions like jaywalking, and then ratcheting up the fees for partial payment or nonpayment.

“The court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests,” the Justice Department investigation found.

A January 2017 study from the Harvard Kennedy School and the National Institute of Justice found that at least 48 states have increased fines and fees since 2010, likely a response to the 2009 financial crisis. The increase has left millions of poor Americans in debt to local court systems.

Civil rights advocates stressed the importance of the fines and fees guidance to prevent more situations like the one in Ferguson.

“The excessive fines and fees seen in Ferguson were unlawful, unfair, and counterproductive,” Gupta said in a statement to VICE News. “While the guidance was not binding law, this change will likely lead to some jurisdictions that are reluctant to engage in reform to do so. It is shameful that Attorney General Sessions is failing the Justice Department’s responsibility to help state and local government comply with federal civil rights and constitutional law.”

Foster, who worked on the guidance when she was at the Office for Access to Justice, spoke about the effects of fines and fees on poor communities at Georgia State University in March.

“When people can’t afford the fines, they are arrested and jailed,” Foster said. “This is devastating financially to those who are poor.”

This is Sessions’ latest in a series of reversals on guidances and civil rights law since he took office. In March, Sessions issued a guidance of his own urging prosecutors to always pursue charges for the most serious crime possible, even when that charge comes with a mandatory minimum sentence — a direct about-face from a guidance issued by Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013. In September the Justice Department argued on behalf of an employer accused of firing someone for being gay, and vowed to end federal oversight of police departments.