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A prisoner walks in a corridor of the historic Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven jail in Rome June 6, 2013. (REUTERS/Tony Gentile) A prisoner walks in a corridor of the historic Regina Coeli or Queen of Heaven jail in Rome June 6, 2013. (REUTERS/Tony Gentile)  

Colorado ACLU accuses cities of running illegal ‘debtors prisons’

The Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is calling out several cities and towns for continuing a practice that has been ruled unconstitutional long ago — jailing people who can’t afford to pay petty fines.

These modern day “debtors prisons” — which the ACLU accuses the towns of Wheat Ridge, Westminster and Northglenn of running — end up costing taxpayers more money than the original fines would have brought in, according to an article in Westword magazine.

“We’re talking about folks who’ve pleaded guilty to violations of municipal ordinances, and the sentence that resulted was usually a fine only,” ACLU’s Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein told the magazine. “But these penalties are being converted into jail sentences when the person is unable to pay the fine in a number of municipalities.”

That jail time usually ends up costing taxpayers far more than the fine. For example, the ACLU points to the case of Jared Thornburg, a homeless man who was unemployed while he recovered from a workplace injury. He was fined $165 for driving a defective vehicle. When he couldn’t pay, he was tossed in jail for 10 days at an estimated cost to the city of Westminster of $700.

Likewise, a homeless and disabled woman who was fined $746 (which included additional fees for nonpayment) for shoplifting $20 worth of merchandise was jailed for 15 days when she failed to pay. The cost to Westminster taxpayers was $1,700.

In both cases, the ACLU said, the fines were never collected because they were dropped in lieu of jail time.

“Jailing Colorado residents because they’re too poor to pay the fines is a bad idea all around,” Silverstein said. “It doesn’t get the fine paid and it wastes resources, because the fine is canceled when it’s converted into a jail sentence — and then taxpayers spend money arresting and incarcerating the person who was unable to pay.”

Westword notes that Denver had a similar policy of jailing people who didn’t pay fines, but scrapped it on its own, probably due to the cost.

Citing several court cases, the ACLU asserted that the practice violates both state and federal law. The organization sent letters to the cities asking them to end the practice.

“As we are sure you will agree,” the letter to Westminster reads, “in a system committed to equal justice for all, accountability cannot mean that people of means pay fines, while the poor go to jail. While poor people, like other defendants, must be held accountable, it is both unjust and unconstitutional to punish them more severely than their wealthier counterparts.”

The ACLU asked the cities for a response to the letters by early January. The organization said it is continuing investigations into other municipalities that may also be utilizing the practice.

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