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The Justice Department sent a letter Monday to state and municipal courts instructing them to avoid incarcerating poor people for unpaid fines over minor offenses, a practice that some municipalities have used as a source of revenue, CNN reports.

Vanita Gupta, the department’s chief civil rights prosecutor, issued the guidelines that are “intended to address some of the most common practices that run afoul of the United States Constitution and/or other federal laws,” according to the network.

This move stems from an investigation of law enforcement and the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri, which revealed racial bias. According to the DOJ’s report, Ferguson officials routinely targeted poor African-Americans, disproportionately issuing them fines for minor infractions to generate revenue.

When many of these poor people can’t pay the fines, they end up incarcerated, unemployed, homeless, or some combination.

When it comes to minor offenses, the Justice Department said the courts shouldn’t jail indigent defendants for nonpayment—knowing they can’t afford to pay. It also discouraged the courts from suspending their licenses to compel payments. That only sets off the harmful cycle that begins with an arrest.

The department announced the availability of grants to encourage state and local courts to find alternatives to fines and incarcerations.



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