ACLU Publishes Article Regarding the Growing Trend of Debtor's Prison
The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado accused three Front Range cities this morning of jailing people for failing to pay court-ordered fines that they are too poor to pay. Relying on state and federal court decisions, the ACLU sent letters to the cities demanding a prompt halt to the practice.The entire article is available here. The April 2013 ACLU of Ohio report entitled "How Ohio's Debtor's Prisons are Ruining Lives and Costing Communities" is available here.
The ACLU conducted an in-depth investigation into the municipal courts of Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and Northglenn, which routinely issue "pay or serve" warrants without any consideration for or inquiry into a debtor’s ability to pay.
"Pay-or-serve" warrants authorize a debtor’s arrest. Once in custody, the debtor must either pay the full amount of the fine or "pay down" the fine by serving time in jail at a daily rate set by the court. Wheat Ridge and Northglenn set the rate at $50 per day, while Westminster converts all unpaid fines into ten-day sentences. None of the three cities has a process to determine whether the debtor has the ability to pay, as federal and state law require.
"These 'pay-or-serve' warrants return Colorado to the days of debtors’ prisons, which were abolished long ago," said Mark Silverstein, ACLU legal director. "Jailing poor people for fines they cannot pay violates the Constitution and punishes poor people just for being poor. It also wastes taxpayer resources, crowds the jails, and doesn’t get the fines paid."
The Jefferson County Jail imprisoned at least 154 people on pay-or-serve warrants during a five-month period from February to June of this year. During that time period, 973 days were served at a cost to taxpayers of more than $70 per day, for a total cost of more than $70,000. These 973 fine days cancelled out $40,000 of fines, making the total loss to the taxpayer $110,000.
"Jailing the poor for failure to pay a fine is not only unconstitutional, but also fundamentally unfair," says ACLU of Colorado staff attorney Rebecca T. Wallace. "This practice creates a two-tiered system of justice in which those who can afford to pay their legal debts avoid jail and can move on with their lives, and those unable to pay end up imprisoned."