“It’s a slippery slope to clemency for criminals, large and small.”
Sunday, March 27, 2016
As New York moves to decriminalize low-level offenses, arguing enforcement is “rigged against communities of color,” other large cities are coming under pressure from the Justice Department to do the same thing.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has issued a warning to municipal and state judges across the country that their courts could lose federal funding if they don’t ease up on fines and arrest warrants for minor crimes involving poor offenders, indigent minorities in particular.
In lieu of fines and jail time, Lynch urges the nation’s 6,500 municipal courts to provide an avenue for offenders to perform “community service” or take advantage of “amnesty days,” whereby outstanding arrest warrants are cleared for nominal fees.
Failure to comply with these policies could trigger a Ferguson-style discrimination investigation. Already, Lynch says she’s “evaluating discrimination complaints against several court systems.”
A strongly worded “guidance” letter, written by her civil-rights team, warns that a local court policy of enforcing warrants for failure to pay court fines and fees can have an adverse “disparate impact” on African-Americans, who are fined and/or arrested for outstanding warrants at “disproportionate” rates versus whites.
Federal data also show that blacks tend to break both felony and misdemeanor laws at a disproportionate rate. Even if applied evenly across all races and in neutral, color-blind fashion, such policies could be found by Justice to be discriminatory.
“In court systems receiving federal funds, these practices may also violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when they unnecessarily impose disparate harm on the basis of race,” the nine-page letters states.
This is the same dubious legal threat the administration is using to force the nation’s public schools to back off suspending unruly — even violent — black students, and to force cops to avoid stopping, frisking and arresting minority offenders.
The Supreme Court has ruled that disparate impact doesn’t violate Title VI, only “intentional” discrimination does. “The administration is quite wrong to say that Title VI incorporates a ‘disparate impact’ standard,” Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity points out. “The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that it does not.”
This new court “reform” will only exacerbate the crime problem. Studies show ignoring low-level crimes like warrant violations only leads to bigger crimes.
Under Mayor de Blasio, the NYPD has scaled back its aggressive enforcement of low-level offenses only to see both minor and serious crime rebound. Already cops have backed off public urination and other public nuisance violations, while overlooking outstanding warrants for many other misdemeanor crimes.
Even a senior Justice Department official predicts the decriminalization-cum-deincarceration movement will backfire in higher crime nationwide. “In five years the crime rate is going to be crazy again,” he said.
The official, who oversees probation of felons paroled from federal prisons and who requested anonymity, worries the new department policy will be abused.
“I don’t see liberal judges even attempting to make people pay or spending the time making an accurate determination of a person being ‘indigent,’ ” he said. “It’s another way of not holding people accountable for their actions.”
The Justice guidance defines “indigent” as anybody who might be “eligible for public benefits,” but not actually receiving them. “Jurisdictions may benefit from creating statutory presumptions of indigency for certain classes of defendants,” the source said.
The administration claims cops and courts conspire to exploit poor blacks to generate city revenue in some kind of shakedown. But data show blacks fail to pay their fines at far greater rates than whites, so why not target whites if cash extortion is the objective?
Many of the cities with the highest fines, such as Philadelphia, are run by Democrats; and the Justice Department is no piker when it comes to levying fines.
“US attorneys always want fines and restitution amounts in the millions from people who have little chance of ever paying it back,” the department official said.
Liberals are actually to blame for the trend they’re trying to reform. Court fines and fees help pay for all the new costs liberals have added to the system, such as drug counseling and home electronic monitoring. They’ve also pushed judges to assess more fines in lieu of incarceration, especially for drug offenders.
Yet now they claim the whole court fine and bail system is racist.
Former federal civil-rights attorney Hans Bader, now with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, describes the latest reforms as a “massive assault on the criminal justice system.”
It’s a slippery slope to clemency for criminals, large and small.
Paul Sperry is a former Hoover Institution media fellow and author of “Infiltration.”