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.
Photos and more below.
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.
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 As for the fines, they would have brought in around $40,000 had they not been superseded by jail.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.