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Colorado House to Consider Bill to End "Debtors' Prisons"


Thursday, March 24, 2016   

DENVER – Colorado Springs this week officially ended its so-called debtors' prison, and today the Colorado House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear a bill that would bar the practice throughout the state.

Denise Maes, public policy director for ACLU Colorado, explains a number of municipalities use jail or the threat of jail time to collect debts from the poor, and she stresses a statewide solution is necessary.

"The practice of putting poor people in jail is shameful,” Maes states. “It's shameful and it's offensive, frankly, that municipal courts think it's appropriate to put people in jail simply because they don't have the ability to pay."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than three decades ago that judges can't jail someone just because he or she can't pay a fine, and in 2014, Colorado passed a law prohibiting the practice.

Maes says House Bill 1311 is designed to close a legal loophole that has been exploited by some local courts.

In October, an ACLU investigation revealed the Colorado Springs Municipal Court imposed more than 800 fines that were later converted into "pay or serve" sentences, resulting in hundreds of people being locked up.

One homeless man was fined more than $4,500 for holding a sign asking for charity, and spent over 90 days in jail to pay off the debt.

Maes says the practice is a burden on taxpayers.

"It's really counterproductive to what I think we want as a community, which is, ‘Let's keep everybody as a contributing member to the community, instead of putting them in jail and wasting money on courts and jails,’" she stresses.

Maes says ultimately, jailing poor people creates a two-tiered system of justice, where those who can't afford legal debts are jailed repeatedly, while others with money can simply pay their fines and move on with their lives.

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