DENVER – A measure upholding the U.S. and Colorado constitutions that prohibit “debtors’ prisons” was passed unanimously Wednesday by the state Senate and now heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk to be signed into law.
“It’s kind of called the ‘Debtors Prison Bill,’” said Sen. Lucia Guzman (D-Denver), citing the story of Charles Dickens, who was 12 years old when his father and family were imprisoned in the 19th century for debts in England.
The practice has continued in Colorado because state laws conflict with constitutional bans on such practices.
“Courts here in Colorado are sending impoverished people to jail not just because they committed crimes, but because they cannot pay fines for violations as small as a traffic offense,” said Guzman who with Rep. Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) sponsored House Bill 1061.
The bill would allow courts to determine if a person is able or unable to pay a fine, and recommend a solution such as public service or a payment plan. If an individual can pay but chooses not to do so, they will be deemed willfully in contempt of court.
“It’s not giving a green light to everyone,” said Guzman.
The bill passed with unanimous bipartisan support in the House and Senate because of the constitutional issue as well as the costs of incarceration of impoverished individuals that resulted in the loss of their jobs and housing. When released, many of these people had to seek public assistance while finding new employment.
In 2012, Denver County Court judges voted to stop issuing arrest warrants for failure to pay fines because of the expenses of tracking them down, court time and imprisonment. That saved an estimated $1 million a year for the county jails, said Guzman.
The ACLU of Colorado conducted an in-depth investigation that found many Colorado cities and some county courts ordered the arrest and imprisonment of poor persons who missed payments of fines and court fees, without a process to determine whether individuals had the ability to pay as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ACLU issued a statement commending the legislature “for putting an end to the unconstitutional, inefficient, and inhumane practice of jailing people who are too poor to pay fines.”
“There is also vast bipartisan agreement among legislators that jailing the poor for unpaid fines is fiscally unwise,” said Denise Mays, public policy director for ACLU of Colorado.
“Throwing a person in jail because they owe a debt to the court not only means that the court will never collect that debt, it also costs the taxpayer significant money to arrest and imprison a person who does not deserve to be there,” said Mays.
Republican Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction said he supported the bill because it aligns state statutes to mirror the state and federal constitutions, and it is cost-wise.
“I don’t say it very often, but I want to thank the ACLU for being an advocate of the poor (and) for doing their due diligence for research and staff time to bring this before us,” said King.