Justice Department Fees & Fines Effort Critical to Criminal Justice Reform

March 14, 2016

The Justice Department released a set of resources today to help court officials reform practices around criminal justice fees and fines, which have contributed to high rates of incarceration in America.

The Brennan Center’s library of work on criminal justice debt was cited extensively in the products circulated by the Department, which went to state court administrators and chief justices nationwide.

The toolkit included a letter with legal guidance on fees and fines enforcement, an announcement of a $2.5 million grant program for states that want to work toward better local practices, support for a national task force to examine the issue, and a guide to aide state and local officials in pursuing appropriate strategies.

“We are thrilled to see the Justice Department take additional steps to stem the tide of sometimes inequitable fines and fees practices across the nation,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program and author of Charging Inmates Perpetuates Mass Incarceration. “These charges are often levied against people who can least afford to pay them. The subsequent punishment for unpaid debts helps spin the revolving door of the criminal justice system. It’s one example of a financial incentive that fuels mass incarceration. The Justice Department’s initiative will help state and local jurisdictions create a better way forward.” 

The Justice Department resources stem from a meeting convened late last year where prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court administrators, impacted individuals, and advocates, including the Brennan Center, discussed issues surrounding criminal justice debt. That discussion “made plain that unlawful and harmful practices exist in certain jurisdiction throughout the country” wrote the Department in its letter, which cites the Brennan Center’s 2010 report, Criminal Justice Debt: A Barrier to Reentry.

Additional Brennan Center work cited by the department today includes Criminal Justice Debt: A Toolkit for ActionReducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Jails;case study of Maryland; and, research on Florida.

For more information, or to schedule an interview, contact Rebecca Autrey at (646) 292-8316 or Rebecca.Autrey@nyu.edu.