White House Gathers Lawmakers And Judges To Solve Steep Court Fees

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For the poor, a court fine — for a minor infraction like a traffic ticket — can be much more difficult to pay than for the rich. The White House brought together a group to talk about solutions.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Court fines for a minor infraction, like a traffic ticket or jaywalking, can cost hundreds of dollars. For those who can't come up with the money, it can mean a stint in jail. Complaints are growing about the practice. And today, the White House brought together experts to talk about solutions. NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The attorney general, Loretta Lynch, said there are so many fines and fees tacked onto minor offenses that equal justice is denied to the poor.

LORETTA LYNCH: What we are seeing in this country amounts to nothing less than the criminalization of poverty - of poverty, not of actions, not of deeds, but of a condition that is not of people's making.

SHAPIRO: The attorney general mentioned the case from the Justice Department's March report on the way courts in Ferguson, Mo., used fines and fees to raise revenue. One woman owed $152 on two parking tickets. She'd been homeless. She paid several hundred dollars, but with late fees, the cost kept going up. She ended up in jail for six days.

Stephen Papa was invited to Washington to repeat a story he first told last year in an NPR series that looked at the problem about how he left the Army and came home from Iraq. One night, he got drunk and was arrested - his only trouble with the law. He was homeless. And when he was $25 short on what he owed, a judge in Grand Rapids, Mich., put him in jail even though he'd just started a few days before.

STEPHEN PAPA: I lost a job. I had a decent job working at a factory making 12 bucks an hour. And I lost that, so I didn't have nothing.

SHAPIRO: The White House meeting brought law makers, judges and others together in a small auditorium to talk about ways to change state policies. A recently retired judge from Alabama, Hub Harrington, stood up and said judges are a big part of the problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUB HARRINGTON: We already have the laws you can't put indigent people in jail without a hearing. We have the law. We don't need more laws.

SHAPIRO: He said the answer was for judges to follow existing law that indigent people can't be forced to pay. Harrington has played his own role. The judge shut down a municipal court in Alabama that he found charged excessive traffic fines in order to raise revenue for the town.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.