(CN) – The independent federal commission charged with investigating and reporting on the state of civil rights in the United States has found many cities use fines and fees on low-income communities to raise revenue instead of compliance.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released the 200-page report this month in part as a response to several stories about the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in 2014, and a subsequent Justice Department investigation that revealed widespread fining, ticketing and jailing of lack residents.
However, the report found the practice, rampant in Ferguson, is not limited to that city and in fact happens throughout the nation.
“Still, three years after the devastating spotlight on injustice the nation witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, the commission’s investigation confirms concretely that Americans across the nation remain vulnerable today to their local governments preying on them in discriminatory ways,” said commission chair Catherine Lhamon. “The recommendations in this report are vital to continuing what must be a national effort to combat unfair and unconstitutional practices in local courts and communities across the country.”
The report says that imposition of fines and fees – sometimes referred to as “cash-register justice” or “policing for profit” – is on the rise due to several factors, including state lawmakers’ failure to fund court systems, greater ease in administering fees and fines and a cynical ploy to raise revenue for criminal justice services.
It can also lead to credit issues for people attempting to work their way out of poverty, the loss of driver’s licenses and other problems.
Compounding these issues, many municipalities have resorted to using private collection agencies that use borderline tactics to recover fines and fees.
The practice typically targets low-income people and is more pervasive in communities of color, according to the report. Police hand out tickets for negligible infractions such as jaywalking, trespassing, littering, disorderly conduct or truancy.
“The excessive imposition of fines and fees can damage judicial credibility and the relationships between law enforcement and residents,” the report says.
The practice has received bipartisan condemnation, with many libertarian-leaning conservatives criticizing cities and counties for funding their criminal justice systems on the backs of their poorest residents.
“Not only is it wrong to potentially ruin someone’s life over small infractions, but incarcerating an individual can often times cost the government more money as they waste resources on people who pose no threat to the community,” said Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform. “The DOJ and the United States Commission on Civil Rights has a duty to encourage better practices in municipal courts to avoid abuse.”
To combat the widespread abuse, the commission says cities and counties need to formulate a universal standard by which to evaluate an individual’s ability to pay fines. This standard should include a presumption of an inability to pay for people who are homeless, have mental illnesses, juveniles and those living below the poverty level.
The commission also called on the Justice Department to collect data related to fines and fees at various municipalities so that officials can cross-compare and respond more expeditiously to problems and abuses.
States, cities and counties need to eliminate possible conflicts of interest by putting money collected from funds and fees in a specific fund and also discontinuing the use of private collection services.
The report also calls on Congress to authorize the Justice Department to investigate and fine courts that impose fines and fees on citizens in an unconstitutional manner.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has thus far seemed reluctant to pick up some of the suggested reforms of his predecessors, even going so far as to reverse policies related to civil asset forfeiture and the selling of surplus military equipment to police departments.
Nevertheless, some civil rights organizations expressed optimism that there is recognition of ongoing abuses of low-income people and minorities by the criminal justice system.
Myesha Braden, director of Criminal Justice Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said she is hopeful the Justice Department will take the report seriously.
“The imposition of fines and fees on poor people and minorities as a method of revenue generation is a major component of mass incarceration,” she said. “The harmful results of this practice, including the incarceration of individuals for no other reason than their poverty, undermines the basic principle of our criminal justice system – equal justice for all.”