Jared Thornburg was ticketed for driving a defective vehicle in Westminster, Colorado. He didn’t pay the $165 fee he owed, because he couldn’t afford it. So the local court sent him to jail instead. Linda Roberts couldn’t pay the $371 in fines and fees for shoplifting $20 worth of food while she was out of work and homeless. When she didn’t pay, the fees ballooned to $746. While her initial punishment was a fine that she had explained at the time she couldn’t afford, her punishment for failure to pay was jail time.
Several Colorado cities are routinely sending individuals to jail for failure to pay fines and fees, according to an American Civil Liberties review. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that jailing someone because they cannot afford to pay a fine is unconstitutional. But these cities make these determinations for hundreds of individuals without any determination of ability to pay, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU findings are the latest to find that so-called “debtors’ prisons” are seeing a revival in many jurisdictions, in spite of the state and constitutional law that forbids them. In April, another ACLU investigation found similar breaches of constitutional law in Ohio. In Georgia and Alabama, these systems have been fueled in part by private probation firms that profit from holding criminal penalties over the heads of those who can’t afford to pay traffic fines. CBS News has estimated that jurisdictions in more than a dozen states may be reviving the once-reviled practice.
The ACLU’s recent analysis doesn’t mention private probation. But at least some counties utilize the practice, including Jefferson County, which the ACLU found imprisoned at least 154 people for failure to pay during a five-month period.
This imprisonment not only violates the law; it also costs money. Jefferson County, for example, holds individuals one day per $50 owed, while the daily cost of holding those individuals is $70. In sum, the total loss to the taxpayer for days served in Jefferson County was $110,000 during just those five months, according to the ACLU. The ACLU found similar financial losses in Ohio counties. That does not factor in the cost of lost wages, jobs, or other major sacrifices to those individuals whose lives were upended by jail time.
Debtors’ prisons are not the only way poverty is punished with jail time. Bail systems in states such as New Jersey effectively sentence those awaiting trial to jail for being poor, for periods of 10 months or more, and without regard to whether they pose a danger to the community. These policies are continuing or expanding, even as the U.S. incarceration rate has exploded.