by Sam Rolley
Cash-strapped municipalities throughout the Nation are wrongheadedly throwing residents into jail for failing to pay court-ordered fines, even when the taxpayer cost of jailing the debtors is higher than letting the fine slide.
Critics of the practice of jailing people who fail to pay fines stemming from non-jailable offenses like vehicle equipment citations and other court costs, contend that jailing residents who owe fines is illegal and essentially sets up a localized debtors’ prison.
“It’s a waste of taxpayer resources, and it undermines the integrity of the justice system,” Carl Takei, staff attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told FOX News.
“The problem is it’s not actually much of a money-making proposition… to throw people in jail for fines and fees when they can’t afford it. If counties weren’t spending the money jailing people for not paying debts, they could be spending the money in other ways.”
The Colorado chapter of the ACLU recently accused three Front Range cities of jailing people for failing to pay court-ordered fines that they could not afford. According to the organization, municipal courts in Westminster, Wheat Ridge and Northglenn, routinely issue “pay-or-serve” warrants without consideration for a debtor’s ability to pay.
“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.”
In reporting on the Colorado towns, ACLU noted that the Jefferson County Jail imprisoned at least 154 people on pay-or-serve warrants between February and June 2013. The organization deducts that 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,” the ACLU reports.
Similar situations are occurring all over the Nation.
An Ohio man ended up sitting in jail for 10 days last year because he couldn’t pay the balance on an outstanding $900 in costs owed to the municipal court of the Town of Norwalk. The court converted the fine he couldn’t pay into jail time, despite a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that very practice unConstitutional.
Harpersville, Ala., officials got into hot water last year, following a lawsuit stemming from a traffic-ticketing scheme involving police, city officials and a private probation company. One judge in the State called the arrangement a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”
If people ticketed for speeding there were not immediately able to fines imposed by Hapersville’s municipal court, they were referred to the private company, which instantly began tacking on additional fees that multiplied the cost of the original offense — all under the sanction of criminal law. Many people were eventually jailed on bogus failure to appear charges, and every interaction with the town’s legal system cost them more money.
Shelby County Circuit Judge Hub Harrington said in a ruling against the city: “When viewed in a light most favorable to Defendants, their testimony concerning the City’s court system could reasonably be characterized as the operation of a debtors prison. The court notes that these generally fell into disfavor by the early 1800′s, though the practice appears to have remained common place in Harpersville. From a fair reading of the defendants’ testimony one might ascertain that a more apt description of the Harpersville Municipal Court practices is that of a judicially sanctioned extortion racket. Most distressing is that these abuses have been perpetrated by what is supposed to be a court of law. Disgraceful.”