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Debtors prison: ACLU targets cities that jail people too poor to pay fines

Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Colorado Supreme Court have ruled that individuals can't be jailed because they're too poor to pay fines. But the ACLU of Colorado maintains that at least three local communities, and possibly a lot more, routinely do so.

The organization has written the towns asking for change. Continue to get more information about this modern-day equivalent of debtors prison, including the stories of two people who were sentenced to fines but wound up behind bars instead.

"We're talking about folks who've pleaded guilty to violations of municipal ordinances, and the sentence that resulted was usually a fine only," notes ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein. "But these penalties are being converted into jail sentences when the person is unable to pay the fine in a number of municipalities. The fines are automatically converted into jail time."

This last statement is based on two years of research, with the first salvo on the topic focusing on three communities: Wheat Ridge, Northglenn and Westminster. According to the organization, Westminster hits individuals with ten day sentences if they're unable to pay their fine, while Wheat Ridge and Northglenn have determined that one day in jail is the equivalent of $50 toward the fine.

Mark Silverstein.
Mark Silverstein.

How widespread is this practice? The organization calculates that the Jefferson County Jail imprisoned 154 people on so-called pay-or-serve warrants between February to June of this year, at a cost of more than $70 a day per person, or approximately $70,000. As for the fines, they would have brought in around $40,000 had they not been superseded by jail. By the ACLU's math, the policy resulted in a total loss to taxpayers of $110,000 or so.

"Jailing Colorado residents because they're too poor to pay the fines is a bad idea all around," Silverstein believes. "It doesn't get the fine paid and it wastes resources, because the fine is canceled when it's converted into a jail sentence -- and then taxpayers spend money arresting and incarcerating the person who was unable to pay."

Moreover, he continues, "it worsens poverty, it unjustly creates a two-tier justice system and it violates the federal and state constitutions."

This last assertion is spelled out in the letters to the three communities; we've included one of the extremely similar documents below. The missive notes multiple Supreme Court cases in backing up the philosophy that "if the State determines a fine or restitution to be the appropriate and adequate penalty for the crime, it may not thereafter imprison a person solely because he lacked the resources to pay it."

When it comes to Colorado law, the letter cites the 1987 case Kinsey v. Preeson, which states:

The purpose of the body execution statute, to coerce a judgment debtor into paying the judgment, cannot be effected against an indigent debtor. The only real effect of the body execution against an indigent debtor is that of punishment. Such a punishment can be avoided by a solvent debtor but becomes mandatory against an indigent debtor. Thus, the body execution statute is invidiously discriminatory and unconstitutional.

According to Silverstein, "the courts haven't said what the proper punishment is" when people can't pay. "What they've said incarceration is an improper one. But courts have the option to waive a fine, to impose community service or to look at other forms of creative sentencing. It's throwing people who can't pay in jail that's forbidden."

The ACLU has asked the three communities to stop imposing jail sentences in such cases, as well as to respond to the letter by early January. In the meantime, the organization will continue its investigation to determine how many other places are taking similar actions. But Silverstein says at least one major city -- Denver -- is off the hook. Denver officials stopped the practice last year on their own, with expenses presumably having been a major factor in the decision.

"Costs vary from county to county, but I would guess Denver would have been spending $90 to $100 a day to keep people in jail," he says. "And there were thousands and thousands of outstanding warrants for failure to pay."

The money from those fines may have been lost, but now, Denver taxpayers aren't ponying up much more than their value as an alternative. And the city came to its determination without a nudge from the ACLU.

Continue for mini-profiles of debtors' prisoners, complete with photos, and the ACLU's letter to one city that allegedly jails people unable to pay fines.

The following mini-profiles of debtors' prison examples feature ACLU of Colorado photos and text. They're followed by the organization's letter to Westminster.

Jared Thornburg.
Jared Thornburg.
Jared Thornburg: Jared Thornburg was recently unemployed, recovering from a serious workplace injury, and homeless when the City of Westminster threw him in jail for ten days because he could not pay a fine for driving a defective vehicle.

In March 2012, Jared pleaded to driving a defective vehicle and was ordered by the court to pay $165 in fines and costs. Jared told the court that he was homeless and penniless and could not pay the fine. He asked for a brief amount of time to try to get the money together to pay, but the court told him that he would have to pay by the end of the next day, or a warrant would be issued for his arrest. Jared was unable to come up with the money and, shortly after, the court issued a pay-or-serve warrant for his arrest.

The warrant ordered that Jared either immediately pay $245, an amount which now included new fees stemming from his inability to pay, or serve 10 days in jail. Despite knowing that Jared was homeless and unemployed, the Westminster Municipal Court sentenced him to 10 days in jail, without any hearing on the matter. Jared was arrested in May 2012 and he served the full 10 days in jail without ever being taken before a judge.

Jared is now employed at a King Soopers grocery store, where he has been promoted three times in eight months. Had Westminster taken into account his inability to pay and granted him an extension, he would by now have paid off his fine. Instead, Jared spent 10 days in jail at a cost of over $700 to the taxpayer.

Linda Roberts: Linda Roberts is a 55 year old disabled, homeless grandmother. Linda's only source of income are food stamps and a small disability check, and she often does not have enough money to pay for food.

In June 2012, Linda shoplifted $20 worth of groceries. Linda pleaded guilty to the charge and a Wheat Ridge Municipal Court Judge ordered her to pay $371 in fines and fees and to take a class at a cost of $80. Ms. Roberts explained to the court that she was unemployed, disabled and impoverished and did not have the means to pay.

When Linda did not pay, the fees and fines ballooned to $746 and a pay-or-serve warrant was issued for her arrest. The warrant ordered that Ms. Roberts either pay the full amount or serve 15 days in jail.

Linda was arrested in October 2012, and she served 15 days in Adams County Jail, at a cost of $1,700 to the taxpayers. While in jail, Linda appeared before the Westminster Municipal Court, only to be told that her only choices would be to put up the full amount of the fine or serve the 15 days. Linda did not have the money, so she was forced to "pay off" her fine through imprisonment.

ACLU Fine Letter to Westminster

Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "More surveillance cameras don't make you safer, ACLU says."


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