Debtors’ prison

Running afoul of the law carries with it the potential for financial penalties. Fines and fees are associated with many a misdemeanor or other minor offense and often are the means by which legal matters are remedied. Dog-at-large, broken taillights or parking violations carry a dollar amount that require legal tender to settle. Those fines and fees are inconvenient or irritating for many people. For some, though, they are prohibitive. It is appropriate to levy jail time when those who can pay refuse to; for those who cannot pay, jail is not an acceptable alternative. A measure signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper this week codifies those boundaries.

House Bill 1061 eliminates the practice of turning Colorado’s jails into debtors’ prisons for offenders without the means to pay their fines. The measure was developed after the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado documented a number of cases in which indigent people who committed minor offenses were jailed for their inability to pay associated fines. In Jefferson County, the ACLU found 154 cases between February and June 2013 in which people had been locked up in the county jail after a “pay-or-serve” warrant was issued. Those cases netted 973 days that people spent in jail to cancel fees owed.

The trouble is, the math does not work. The jail time cost taxpayers $70 a day, while the fines forfeited totaled $40,000. Combining the lost revenue from unpaid fines with that spent to jail offenders instead, the total loss was $110,000. That formula is fair to neither offenders nor taxpayers.

HB1061 eliminates that practice. Those who are found by a court to be incapable of paying their fines – not simply unwilling to do so – no longer will be jailed because of it. Instead, courts will have to find alternative methods of collecting the debt to society. That is just and appropriate. Those found to be too poor to pay fines for minor offenses should not be excused from making their mishap right. But neither should they be imprisoned for lacking the financial means to do so expeditiously. Payment plans, waivers, community service or other mechanisms for repaying a debt are readily available to municipal courts, who must now use them instead of simply throwing an indigent offender in jail.

The ACLU deserves recognition for its work documenting the prevalence of this practice as well as advocating for its end. The Legislature, too, crafted a measure that recognizes the socioeconomic discrimination that the debtors’ prison policy embodied but does not let people off the hook for their offenses. Of particular interest is HB 1061’s language making clear that those who can pay, must, and if they refuse, jail is a perfectly acceptable punishment. That is wholly appropriate.

Even those who lack the financial resources must be held accountable for their crimes – however small. The law is law, after all, and those who break it are responsible for the consequences. But jailing poor people for failing to pay adds a layer of punishment that people of means do not face. That is unfair and unjust. House Bill 1061 rightly corrects that imbalance.

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