In medieval Europe, when a person owed money to another and couldn’t pay them, they were often thrown into a debtor’s prison and left there, often in squalid conditions, until the debt was paid. Of course, by virtue of being in prison people often could not pay their debts, and so would languish in the debtor’s prison until death.
This barbaric practice has fallen out of favor in the modern world, except in such places as the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Hong Kong, and…the United States.
Recently I read an article in The Denver Post entitled “Colorado cities jail poor who can’t pay fines for minor offenses”. The story goes on to say that the practice is in violation of the United States and Colorado constitutions and “…amounts to a resurgence of debtors’ prisons, which were abolished in the 1800s”.
However, the practice of jailing poor people for their inability to pay court fines, child support, and debts arising from collections is flourishing in the U.S. today. Research indicates that the practice is followed in seventeen U.S. states, in most cases for failure to pay a criminal justice or child support debt. In Colorado, specifically in the cities of Arvada, Northglenn, Thornton, Westminster (Adams County), Boulder (Boulder County), Broomfield (Broomfield County), Colorado Springs (El Paso County), Lakewood and Wheat Ridge (Jefferson County), Fort Collins and Loveland (Larimer County) the practice of jailing those too poor to pay their criminal justice debts, some as low as $90, is followed.
This is troubling for several reasons. First, it very likely violates the United States Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Bearden v. Georgia (1983) and Section 12 of the Colorado Constitution. The Denver Post reports that there is also a 1987 Colorado Supreme Court decision that prohibits the practice “…because it punishes the poor for being poor.”
Secondly, it is not cost effective. Incarcerating someone for more than a few days far exceeds the modest amount of fines that would be collected.
Third, this type of “punishment” falls disproportionately on the least able members of society, and as such represents an amoral abuse of government power. These people are often out of work and don’t have family or friends to provide assistance. They may have substance abuse problems. If they are trying to get their lives on track the imprisonment and difficulties associated with it are making their life situations that much worse. These people are already living on the edge of society.
Fourth, this application of sanctions is not evenly applied. In one of these eleven cities, a poor person can be jailed for failing to pay a fine, but in the rest of the state that is not the case. This seems to represent a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
I call upon our state legislators, elected district attorneys, and the Supreme Court justices to review this situation. If better legal minds than mine find this practice to be in contravention of the United States and Colorado Constitutions and Supreme Court rulings, they can and should censure these cities that are violating the law and force them into compliance with the law.
If all else fails, perhaps legislation to prohibit this practice needs to be evaluated and brought forward for the 2014 General Assembly.
By Richard D. Turnquist
December 16, 2013
U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bearden v. Georgia – 461 U.S. 660 (1983):