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Report: Nebraska Needs to Rethink Court Fines, Bail System

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Wednesday, January 4, 2023   

Some Nebraska judges are failing to follow state laws related to cash bail, court fees and court fines, according to a two-year study in Douglas and Lancaster counties.

The report by the ACLU of Nebraska found defendants are not always being asked about their ability to pay bail and court costs, nor are they being informed of alternatives if lacking the funds.

Sam Petto, communications director for the ACLU of Nebraska, said they noticed issues in about 40% of the cases they observed. He pointed out cash bail disproportionately affects lower-income Nebraskans and is, ultimately, a type of "debtor's prison."

"So, if you imagine someone with the exact same circumstance, charge, etc., and they just have an extra thousand dollars in a bank account, that person might be back out in the community at their job, with the support structure they need - while the other person sits in jail."

Petto also mentioned the "collateral consequences" when someone who can't afford to pay bail or fees spends time behind bars from losing a job, to not being able to arrange child care or fulfill caregiving responsibilities. The report recommendations include "bench cards" for judges, with specifics related to bail and fees, and legislative action including eliminating cash bail.

Petto noted the 2017 Nebraska bail reform law was aimed at keeping people charged with nonviolent crimes from spending time in jail due to their inability to pay for bail and fines.

"And many Nebraskans do not know that they have the right to say, 'Hey, I can't afford that,' or to request things like a payment plan, community service, or having the judge entirely waive that fee or fine," Petto outlined.

The study also found the largest number of people in jail in Douglas and Lancaster counties were there on a pretrial basis, with persons of color significantly overrepresented. Petto explained in addition to the human cost, the current system plays a large role in the overstressed status of Nebraska jails.

Disclosure: The ACLU of Nebraska contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, Immigrant Issues, and Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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