Attorney General Rescinds Warning Not to Extort Poor Defendants

Former U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to courts across the United States. The letter came from Obama’s Justice Department officials. The letter warned local judges not to assess costs and fees to low-income defendants just to pay the court’s bills and employee salaries. The letter said that court budgets aren’t a legitimate purpose of assessing the fees. Current Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the letter.

Sessions believes that it’s inappropriate for the federal executive branch to give this advice. Sessions calls it executive overreaching. Sessions rescinded Obama’s advice as part of a larger effort to undo some of Obama’s policies and guideline statements on legal matters.

Sessions is taking a closer look at a number of Obama’s guidelines. Some are about the courts. Others are about broader issues like Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms guidelines or even guidelines for individuals with disabilities.

Sessions defends his actions by saying that the statements were unenforceable guidelines. He says that it’s inappropriate for the executive branch to try to assert authority that it doesn’t have. Sessions says that government regulations need to go through the proper channels.

When you pay fines for a criminal conviction or even pay a traffic ticket, you might be surprised to learn where your fees actually go. Some of your fines and costs likely go to operating the court. Fines may even go to things like the pension fund for court employees including for the judge who ordered you to pay the fine in the first place.

Some say that when judges indirectly benefit from the fees that they collect, it creates an inappropriate conflict of interest. Others say that collecting fines to meet operating costs is a necessary evil of conducting court. For now, courts continue to profit from the people they convict.

Rescinding the policy isn’t the only thing that Sessions is doing in public office. Sessions is encouraging prosecutors to file the most serious charges possible. He’s encouraging prosecutors to bring harsh charges without regard for mandatory minimum sentences and without taking into account that prosecutors have charging discretion. Critics say that Sessions is issuing the same opinion directives that Obama’s administration issued only on different topics.

Obama’s letter went to chief judges and administrations throughout the United States in 2016. Obama’s administration said that the purpose of the letter was to make sure that courts protect the rights of citizens. They say that the police and the courts often conduct business with the goal of generating revenue rather than honestly determining guilt and innocence under the law.

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