ACLU tracks Colorado courts unlawfully jailing poor people

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ity courts across Colorado routinely jail people too poor to pay fines, according to research conducted by the Colorado chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and detailed in letters sent to Northglenn, Westminster and Wheat Ridge this week.

“Pay-or-serve” warrants shackle the indigent for failing to pay minor fines. The cities knock off small amounts of the debt for each day a debtor spends behind bars.

“These warrants return Colorado to the days of debtors’ prisons, which were abolished long ago,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director, in a release.  “Jailing poor people for fines they cannot pay violates the Constitution and punishes poor people just for being poor.”

The national ACLU has chronicled the rise of debtors’ prisons over the last few years, as the recession cast increasing numbers of Americans out of the workforce where they fell into debt. The impulse to threaten debtors with jail time as a way to recapture revenue is misguided, the organization argues, because court and prison costs add up to more than the sums that are owed.

“The sad truth is that debtors’ prisons are flourishing today, more than two decades after the Supreme Court prohibited imprisoning those who are too poor to pay their legal debts,” ACLU researchers wrote in a 2010 report. “In this era of shrinking budgets, state and local governments have turned aggressively to using the threat and reality of imprisonment to squeeze revenue out of the poorest defendants who appear in their courts.”

For its report on the story Sunday, the Denver Post uploaded two recordings from court hearings in pay-or-serve cases. In one, Wheat Ridge judge Christopher Randall encourages Christopher Penny, a homeless man who plead guilty for public possession of alcohol, to look positively upon his nine-day prison sentence.

“I like to put a positive spin on bad things if I can,” the judge said. “You don’t have to pay a fine. You get out of a fine.”

The ACLU counted 193 pay-or-serve warrants issued over an 18-month period in Northglenn, which amounts on average to one warrant issued every two days the court was in session. Many warrants were tied to municipal code violations, infractions that include keeping a barking dog in a backyard or failing to trim unsightly frontyard weeds.

In recent years, debtors have been abused not just by genuine state authorities but also by private-sector businesses that pretend to wield the force of law. The story of a private collection agency in Pennsylvania shocked readers and drew an attorney general lawsuit in 2010.

Unicredit America set up a fake courtroom in its offices, complete with judge’s bench and shelves stacked with law books. Company staffers dressed up in black robes and mock police uniforms. As part of the staged proceedings, fake courtroom staffers were dispatched to confused debtors’ homes to retrieve documents, titles to cars and bank account information.

[Image via SalFalko on Flickr]


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