Bill to be considered February 25 by the House Judiciary Committee at 1:30 pm MT
“Debtors’ prison sounds like an archaic term – some long abandoned concept from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. Unfortunately, their use is alive and well in Colorado and you don’t have to travel very far beyond the Capitol to see it.
“The U.S. Constitution and the Colorado Constitution prohibit debtors’ prisons. The law requires that, before jailing anyone for unpaid fines, courts must determine whether an individual is too poor to pay. Jailing a person who is unable to pay violates the law, and yet municipal courts across the State of Colorado continue this draconian practice.
“The ACLU conducted a 2-year investigation and discovered that many Coloradans are being jailed for their failure to pay outstanding court fines and fees, and there is no inquiry by the Court into whether the individual has the ability to pay.
“Incarceration under these circumstances is forbidden by the U.S. Constitution. The United States Supreme Court has consistently recognized that to deprive an individual of freedom because, through no fault of their own, they cannot pay is contrary to fundamental fairness that is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.
“Make no mistake: this practice exists. And persists. Most of Colorado’s largest cities issue pay or serve warrants. In our investigation, we discovered that individuals clearly lacking the ability to pay were jailed for very minor offenses: a dog off-leash, minor traffic infractions, and open container violations.
“Incarcerating the poor creates a two-tiered system of justice. The poorest are punished more harshly and, due to escalating fines and fees that attach because of late payments or non-payments, poor people pay more in fines.
“Incarcerating the poor is fiscally unwise. The taxpayer pays multiple times. First, while incarcerated, there is a cost for the County per day, per bed. Second, the Court forfeits its ability to collect the fines and third, while incarcerated, the defendant risks losing their job and may become dependent on public assistance. This is a net fiscal loss to the taxpayers.
“Our judicial system, which prides itself on equal justice for all, cannot maintain a system whereby some people pay their fines and the poor go to jail. Without question, accountability is an important aspect of our judicial system. But so is fairness.
“The ACLU urges a yes vote on HB 1061.”