House Judiciary says no to Colorado debtors’ prisons

DENVER- Linda Roberts stole canned salmon from a Safeway just over a year ago. She was caught and brought before Wheat Ridge’s municipal court, which found her guilty of shoplifting and issued her a grand total of $576 in fines.

“I didn’t have enough money to buy food, so I certainly didn’t have enough money to pay hundreds of dollars in fees,” said Roberts, a 56-year-old grandmother of nine who subsists on a small disability check and food stamps. The fine was more than half of her monthly fixed income.

“Still the judge ordered me arrested when I couldn’t pay and I spent 15 days in jail for the $21 in food I stole,” she said, testifying before the House Judiciary committee Tuesday in favor of a bill to stop city courts from jailing people who can’t pay their fines.

While she was in jail, Roberts was evicted from her low-income housing and lost all her belongings. The jail time absolved her of her debt, but only at tremendous personal cost to Roberts and at a rate of at least $100 a day for taxpayers who fund the jail

Roberts’s experience is hardly unusual. In December the ACLU released a report finding that “pay-or-serve” warrants are commonly used in several Colorado municipalities. A court in Northglenn, for example, issued one pay-or-serve warrant for every two days it was in session — a total of 193 over 18 months.

The practice of sending debtors’ to prison is so common that Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton is carrying a bill this session to change it. The measure, HB 1061, is hardly a get-out-of-jail free card. Defendants must prove they aren’t able to pay the fine and request a waiver or lower payment. Those who lie about not being able to pay will be considered in contempt of court and may wind up in jail.

Sheriff Doug Darr of Adams County said the new policy would make much more sense for the community and for law enforcement.

“When people are in jail, they’re not working,” he said. “We believe that this is a mechanism to also relieve some of the load on the county jails. … Beds would be available for more serious offenders.”

Darr added that the Adams County Jail already has more than 1,000 inmates in custody and that locking up more people than necessary is fiscally irresponsible.

“The combined direct and indirect cost of incarcerating someone in the Adams County jail is $114.41. It’s quite a bit of money for a 24-hour period,” he said.

Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, added that most of the people jailed for debts a fine aren’t dangerous.

“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,” she said.

Ultimately, conservative and liberal Judiciary Committee members  were swayed. The chamber approved of the measure unanimously, sent it forward to appropriations and congratulated Rep. Salazar for making good policy.

“This was completely off my radar and I appreciate you brining a bill to correct something that was wrong in our society,” said Rep. John Buckner of Aurora.

“It’s our top responsibility to make sure that constitutional behavior is the behavior of our court system, that our statutes are constitutional and that justice is served. This bill, if it should pass, will achieve all those things,” add Rep. Daniel Kagan, Judiciary chairman.

“It’s in the highest tradition of this legislature and this committee.”

[Photo by John W. Schulze]

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