Attorney General

Sessions rescinds letter warning local courts about fees and fines imposed on poor people

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions/

Updated: Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded a “Dear Colleague” letter that warned state and local courts about constitutional concerns regarding fees and fines imposed on poor defendants.

Sessions rescinded the letter along with 24 other documents he found “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law, or otherwise improper,” according to a statement. The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News have stories.

The letter, issued in March 2016 by the U.S. Justice Department, had urged courts to review procedures regarding fines to make sure they comply with “due process, equal protection and sound public policy.”

The letter said courts shouldn’t incarcerate a person for nonpayment without first determining whether the person is indigent and whether the failure to pay is willful.

Sessions’ statement said he has “ended the longstanding abuse of issuing rules by simply publishing a letter or posting a web page.” Congress has provided for a regulatory process “and we are going to follow it,” Sessions said.

“Therefore, any guidance that is outdated, used to circumvent the regulatory process, or that improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect,” he said.

ABA President Hilarie Bass released a statement on Friday expressing disappointment in the decision to rescind the fees and fines, and asks the Justice Department to reconsider.

“These monetary punishments do nothing to protect the community while placing an unfair and unjust burden on people of lesser means,” the statement said. “Fees and fines that do not take into account a defendant’s ability to pay lead to the criminalization of poverty.”

Fees assessed for minor infractions, such as traffic tickets, can “spiral into thousands of dollars” and lead to unnecessary jailing of those unable to pay, the statement also said.

“Bail set without consideration of financial circumstances can lead to detention of the poorest rather than those who are the most dangerous or those posing the highest flight risks as intended. … If we, as a country, are to live up to the ideal of equality under the law, then there cannot be a price on justice,” the statement noted.

Updated at 1:05 p.m. with statement from ABA President Hilarie Bass.

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