Sessions Revokes Law Enforcement Guidance On Fining Poor Defendants
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this past week he's revoking dozens of pieces of guidance to law enforcement agencies around the country. One of those guidances, for example, was a notice that advised local courts against imposing excessive fines and fees on poor people in certain situations. That issue gained national prominence when a federal investigation into Ferguson, Mo., said the city's practices trapped poor people into a cycle of fines, fees and incarceration. We wanted to know more about this issue. We called Peter Edelman. He's the faculty director of Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality. And he wrote the book "Not A Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization Of Poverty In America." Welcome to the program.
PETER EDELMAN: Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.
SUAREZ: Take us back to when this guidance was first issued. Is it of longstanding and what prompted it?
EDELMAN: What prompted it is what happened in Ferguson. We certainly knew about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. But when people from the Justice Department went down there and journalists and others, they found another thing going on, which was in order to get money to run their city, they just arrested their residents over and over and over again, threw them in jail if they couldn't pay. The thing that happened which caused the Justice Department to do that guidance is that it was happening all over the country. And some lawyers knew that, some journalists knew that, but the country didn't know that. And the Justice Department really hadn't looked at it fully.
SUAREZ: Attorney General Jeff Sessions is within his right to revoke the actions, the guidance of previous attorneys general, right?
EDELMAN: He can do that, but it's a terrible decision. The policy that he's allowing hurts people by really the millions around the country. And it's not only about throwing people in jail because they left their lawn - they didn't mow it or something like that. It also is about taking away driver's licenses and suspending them. And, again, that's a national thing. And so what was useful about the guidance is that it was telling law enforcement people and prosecutors and others across the country that this is a national problem and that they should respond to it, and indeed, many did in response to the guidance. It was a very thoughtful thing to do.
SUAREZ: It should be mentioned that large numbers of local people were trapped in an endless cycle of debt and fines added to the original fines for lack of payment. So even a minor infraction could leave you in hock to the local government for sums in excess of a thousand dollars, which, if you're making minimum wage, might as well be a million dollars.
EDELMAN: Well, and it's more than that. For example, if your driver's license was taken away, people have to drive to work. People have to take their children to school or somebody in the family to a physician. And they would be arrested again. And so what they owed would pile up. Not only that, if they were on probation, it was totally bogus. It was not really probation. It was a way to make money. And it was happening in blue states as well as red states. And so state over state, you have to pay if you're in the prison - pay in order to stay, they say.
SUAREZ: Peter Edelman, are you suggesting that law enforcement authorities, small police departments, sheriff's departments across the country have an inducement to look for these minor infractions because it pays for the gas for the cruisers, pays for the ammunition for the firing range and so on?
EDELMAN: There's a built-in conflict of interest. You have place after place where the judge's salary, as well as the place, as you said - some places even the public defender as well as the prosecutor is only being paid if the money's coming in in this way. It's a terrible system, if you would call it a system.
SUAREZ: Peter Edelman is the faculty director of Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality and author of the book "Not A Crime To Be Poor: The Criminalization Of Poverty In America." Good to talk to you.
EDELMAN: Thank you very much, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.