The biggest systemic change to grow out of the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent protests has been reform of St. Louis County’s municipal court system. Cities are no longer allowed to use their police departments and courts to pad city revenue and put indigent defendants into unconstitutional debtor’s prisons.
Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions has withdrawn the U.S. Justice Department guidance, developed in the wake of the Ferguson protests, that outlines for municipal courts around the country how fines are to be used to administer justice.
For decades the Justice Department has used such guidance letters to signal how it interprets the constitutional protection afforded by a wide range of federal laws. Sessions has not been happy with this process, asserting that Justice Department attorneys are usurping the federal regulatory process.
“Any guidance that is outdated, used to circumvent the regulatory process or that improperly goes beyond what is provided for in statutes or regulation should not be given effect,” Sessions said in a statement Dec. 21.
He rescinded 25 guidance letters dating as far back as the Ford administration. They covered topics as varied as Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms procedures, immigration enforcement and what businesses must do to accommodate service animals. Such letters are not binding but are seen as a good indication of Justice Department intentions. Sessions previously had rescinded an Obama administration guidance letter holding that the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned transgender discrimination in the workplace.
The “Dear Colleague” letter covering fines and fees was sent to state chief justices and state court administrators in March 2016, when Loretta Lynch was attorney general. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and Office for Access to Justice said it was intended to address “some of the most common practices that run afoul of the U.S. Constitution.” Among them was jailing indigent defendants who couldn’t pay fines and unconstitutional bail practices.
Chiraag Bains, a former Civil Rights Division senior counsel, told The New York Times that the guidance letter simply presented what the Supreme Court had ruled in 1983: “Do not imprison a person for nonpayment without first asking whether he or she can pay. Consider alternatives like community service. Do not condition access to a court hearing on payment of all outstanding debt.”
Some municipalities in St. Louis County and elsewhere had been ignoring those rules. The Obama Justice Department said they shouldn’t. The Trump Justice Department apparently doesn’t want to be involved.
Ferguson and the rest of Missouri’s municipalities now have strict guidelines from the Missouri Supreme Court and legislature about fines and fees. There’s a better brand of justice at work — not perfect, but better. It defies belief that the U.S. attorney general would think this is a problem.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.