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White House addresses the incarceration cycle: Prison, debt, & bail practice

WHITE-HOUSEWhite House addresses the incarceration cycle: Prison, debt, & bail practice

By Angela Wills

Information found in the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation of the Ferguson Police Department earlier this year showed that a 67-year-old woman, who lives in Ferguson, Missouri on a fixed income was put in jail for failure to pay a citation for trash-removal.

The court issued the senior citizen with fines totaling $1,000, which averaged out to monthly payments of $100. The report indicates that the elderly woman was struggling to pay the monthly installments and was consistently threatened with jail time for failure to pay.

This woman represents only a tiny example of the large fines and routinely ordered arrests of residents with low or fixed incomes for failure to pay unaffordable fines.

Sally Quillian Yates, DOJ Deputy Attorney General, prepared a statement that read: “problems raised in Missouri and other areas of our country are why the White House and DOJ on Wednesday and Thursday convened a meeting of advocates, researchers, and criminal justice practitioners to discuss ways for more equitable alternatives to these problematic systems for fines, fees, and fixed bail.”

President Barack Obama’s second term has centered on criminal justice reform. Earlier this year, President Obama would become the first sitting president to visit a prison and he’s been very outspoken regarding the reduction of complaints about brutality in colored communities by revamping police departments.

Judges and state officials shared “ideas for creating a system driven not by profit, but by a commitment to fair and constitutional practices,” during the two-day event, according to a statement issued by Yates.

A Department of Justice memorandum reads:

There is no principle under-lying our criminal justice system more essential than that we must treat equally the wealthy and the poor. As former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said in 1962, “If justice is priced in the market place, individual liberty will be curtailed and respect for law diminished.”

To the vast majority of Americans, this concept is a given; it’s innate to being American. This country banned debtors’ prisons under federal law back in 1833. In 1970, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a maximum prison term could not be extended because a defendant failed to pay court costs or fines. A year later, those same justices ruled that a defendant may not be jailed solely because he or she is too poor to pay a fine. Again, in 1983, in a case called Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Constitution does not permit “punishing a person for his poverty.”

A report will be published by the DOJ that is based on recommendations set forth from the meeting, recommending steps that policymakers, lawmakers and legislators can take to revise the criminal justice system.

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