Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington.
Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building in Washington.

The U.S. Justice Department warned state court systems in the country Monday against imposing punitive fines on impoverished people and jailing them if they can not pay, saying the practice is unconstitutional and also erodes trust in local communities.

The top U.S. law enforcement agency said local court systems should not operate as for-profit ventures, using a raft of fines against people living in their communities to fund government operations and then issuing arrest warrants for some people who are too poor to make the payments for relatively minor offenses.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, the warning sent to courts across the United States is aimed at ensuring that "our legal system serves every American faithfully and fairly, regardless of their economic status."

Lynch, the country's top law enforcement official, said, "The consequences of poverty are not only harmful, they are far-reaching. They not only affect an individual's ability to support their family, but also contribute to an erosion of our faith in government."

Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, who directs the department's Office for Access to Justice, said in the letter that "to the extent that these practices are geared not toward addressing public safety, but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality of the tribunal and erode trust between local governments and their constituents."

The Justice Department warning came after a Washington conference in December showed some communities rely heavily on the imposition of fines as a source of government revenue.  The government had found the practice particularly prevalent in Ferguson, Missouri, a small community in the central part of the United States where there were days of street protests after a white policeman shot an unarmed black teenager to death in 2014.