On Sunday's edition of HBO's Last Week Tonight, host Jon Oliver inserted Coors into Les Miserables in a way that was quite funny — albeit for reasons that were decided not funny.
The program's main story last not had to do with municipal citations given to people who are too poor to pay. When fines are overdue, municipalities frequently create payment plans that increase the amount owed at a level that would do a loan shark proud, forcing already destitute individuals to sink deeper and deeper into a financial morass. In the end, many of them are jailed because of their inability to pay.
This is an issue across the United States, including in the Denver area, as we noted in a December 2013 post in which the local branch of the ACLU decried the practice, as epitomized by a then-current policy in Westminster, as the modern-day equivalent of a debtors prison.
Oliver made the same point while telling the tale of a man who wound up behind bars on three separate occasions for stealing a single can of beer. "That's not only not justice. That's the plot of a Southern Les Miserables," Oliver said, before breaking into song: "I dreamed a dream I stole a Coors/And then some assholes put me in jail."
See the entire segment below; the Coors moment pops up just past the 12:15 mark. That's followed by excerpts from the aforementioned post featuring two stories of what debt did to local individuals and an ACLU letter to Westminster.
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 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.