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 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.”
Examples from the ACLU letters include Jared Thornburg, who was sentenced by the Westminster Municipal Court to ten days in jail when he could not pay a $165 fine for driving a defective vehicle, a non-jailable offense. The Northglenn Municipal Court sentenced a homeless man to four days in jail when he was unable to pay a $190 fine for possession of a marijuana pipe. Linda Roberts, a homeless and disabled woman, was sentenced to fifteen days by the Wheat Ridge Municipal Court when she could not pay $671 in fines and court costs. In each case, no inquiry was made into the debtor’s ability to pay.
The municipal court practices criticized in the ACLU’s letters are emblematic of a wider problem, Silverstein said. According to the ACLU, municipal courts in the majority of Colorado’s largest cities order the arrest of persons who miss payments on court-ordered fines, with most of them specifying jail time in proportion to the size of the unpaid debt.
The City of Denver is an exception. Denver stopped issuing warrants for failure to pay money at the beginning of 2012, citing the high costs associated with jailing debtors and the lost revenue of forfeiting fines. After abandoning the practice, Denver increased the amount of fines and fees it collected in the following year, without the added cost of holding people in jail for failure to pay.
The ACLU has requested a written response from the three cities by January 10, 2014.