Debtors’ Prisons

Criminal Legal Reform | End Debtors' Prisons
ACLU Case No. 2013-209


The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado sent letters to three Front Range cities demanding a prompt halt to the illegal practice of jailing poor people for failing to pay court-ordered fines. The ACLU conducted an in-depth investigation into the municipal courts of Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and Northglenn, and found that each city routinely issues “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.

The practices highlighted in the ACLU’s letters are emblematic of a wider problem. 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 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 owed by the arrestees, making the total loss to the taxpayer $110,000.

In its demand that each of the three cities halt the unconstitutional practices, the ACLU requested a written response by January 10, 2014.


Mark Silverstein , ACLU of Colorado Legal Director
Rebecca Wallace , ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney

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