The American Bar Association House of Delegates this week overwhelmingly approved a set of 10 guidelines aimed at stopping incarceration of people solely because they can’t pay court fines and fees, reports the ABA Journal. The guidelines are provided to jurisdictions as a best-practices guide to avoiding creating debtors’ prisons in the ordinary course of administering justice. The ABA resolution urges all federal, state, local and tribal jurisdictions to adopt them.
More than 30 years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that jurisdictions may not incarcerate people for debt stemming from inability to pay fines and fees, according to Robert Weiner, chair of the ABA committee that recommended the guidelines. “Far too many state and local legislators treat the justice system like an ATM, imposing exorbitant fines and fees for civil code violations, traffic tickets, misdemeanors, and felonies in order to fund the government,” said Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines & Fees Justice Center. “People who can’t immediately pay are trapped in a cycle of punishment and poverty they can rarely escape, hurting individuals, families and communities.” Jaime Hawk of the Washington State Bar Association said, “This criminalization of poverty must end.”