United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaking at the  Justice Department in Washington last week. On Tuesday, she called for reform to court costs and fees which unfairly penalize the poor. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)

The nation’s top law enforcement official on Tuesday called for a recalibration of the nation’s justice system that for many people, she said, is “not a guarantee of equality, but an obstacle to opportunity.”
Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch urged leaders in the legal profession to overhaul court fees, fines and a money bail system that can lead to a cycle of debt, incarceration and poverty for those who cannot afford to pay.

“When we begin to treat defendants as cash registers, rather than citizens, we do more damage to the fabric of our institutions,” Lynch told a crowd of judges, lawyers and law clerks gathered for an annual lecture at the U.S. District Court in Washington, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
“We stain the sanctity of our laws. And we only tighten the shackles of those struggling to break the chains of poverty.”

Lynch, the first African American woman to lead the Justice Department, has used her post to try to improve strained relations between residents and police after a number of high-profile police shootings of unarmed African Americans throughout the country.

The Obama administration Justice Department has also been aggressive in opening civil rights investigations into police departments and has negotiated consent decrees that require local leaders to implement significant and sometimes costly reforms.

The department’s investigation in Ferguson, Mo., after a police shooting of Michael Brown, found widespread use of excessive fines and fees for minor offenses, including jaywalking and untended lawns. As a result of an agreement in the Ferguson case, Lynch said, more than 32,000 court cases were dismissed and more than $1.5 million in fines were canceled.

Lynch’s remarks came just a week after the election of Donald Trump and she acknowledged Tuesday that she is a short-timer. Although she did not mention the incoming president by name, she said criminal justice reforms must continue with the next administration.

“As my time as attorney general comes to an end,” she said, “I am painfully aware of all that remains undone. I have no illusions that our work is finished.”

It is unclear whether the reforms Lynch has begun to implement would continue under Trump. As a candidate, he suggested the nation was in need of more powerful law enforcement and was critical of Obama’s effort to grant early release to inmates serving long prison terms for nonviolent drug offenses.

Lynch spoke at the Judge Thomas A. Flannery Lecture, named after the U.S. District judge who served 36 years on the bench and as the U.S. Attorney in the District before his death in 2007.