Targeted Fines and Fees Against Low-Income Communities of Color: Civil Rights and Constitutional Implications

September 2017
By U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

This report describes current practices and the problems with charging fines and fees broadly, including special considerations for youth in the justice system. The report examines the Department of Justice’s enforcement efforts regarding municipal court reforms with respect to the targeted imposition of fines and fees. The Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony from the Department of Justice, experts, and scholars in the field, and a majority of the commission made findings and recommendations. The commission came to the conclusion that unchecked discretion or stringent requirements to impose fines or fees can lead and have led to discrimination and inequitable access to justice when not exercised in accordance with the protections afforded under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution. In addition, if a jurisdiction’s primary goal is to generate revenue rather than promote public safety, it can create an incentive for law enforcement to issue as many citations as possible, contrary to the pursuit of justice. Nonetheless, many jurisdictions today require or permit courts and municipalities to impose and collect an array of fees for criminal as well as civil justice activities in addition to government programs unrelated to courts.