by William Skink
I wrote this post about the return of the debtor’s prison two years ago after reading a Nation article about how a town turned poverty into a prison sentence. Since then, the ACLU went after the city of Colorado Springs and recently won, forcing Colorado Springs to pay out settlement money for jailing people too poor to afford paying their fines. From the link:
People who fail to pay their fines in Colorado Springs will no longer be sent to prison.
The city council has eliminated debtor prison sentences, making a temporary ban permanent.
According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the city agreed to stop imposing jail sentences for unpaid fines and to repeal panhandling ordinances that were used to authorize that practice after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.
Colorado ACLU director Mark Silverstein says a fund needs to be set up to compensate people who were wrongly jailed.
The ACLU says a survey found that hundreds of poor people had been jailed since January 2014 because they couldn’t pay their fines.
In Missoula, it is not accurate to state that our aggressive solicitation (panhandling) and pedestrian interference (sitting on a sidewalk with a bunch of gear) ordinances come with no jail time. Though the ordinances don’t explicitly allow jail time to be imposed for violating the ordinances, when the fines aren’t paid, warrants are issued for “failure to appear”.
Late last month, the 100 page jail diversion plan was finally completed and delivered to city officials to begin reviewing. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this plan. From the link:
McDermott says the jail is simply the wrong place for many inmates who struggle with addiction and mental illness, and can make a dangerous work environment for jail staff.
“And these people truly should not be in our jail,” McDermott said. “Our jail is not a facility that can provide the proper care and treatment for addicts or detox, as well as mental health episodes that need to be hospitalized.”
Presented ideas included adjusting the way warrants are issued and re-evaluating over 11,000 active warrants that are in effect now. They also highlighted the use of alternatives to incarceration like community service, house arrest and sobriety monitoring.
After the presentation, the floor was opened to public comment. Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks voiced her support for most of the proposal, but also shared concerns.
“You can’t force any of this on the judges,” Jenks said. “You can’t tell a judge how they’re going to sentence. You can’t tell a judge what warrants they can put out. You can’t tell a judge how to set the bonds. There’s a system in place for that.”
For most people, when they get caught engaging in some minor infraction that warrants a ticket and a fine, they pay the fine because the normal consequences of not paying–like damaging reports impacting your credit score–is enough to inspire compliance. But for manny of the “repeat offenders”, coercing compliance is much more difficult.
So what happens when fines aren’t a deterrent? What happens when even jail isn’t the consequence it was intended to be? What can you take from poor people who have nothing left to take?
Colorado Springs is being forced to pay up by the ACLU for running its debtor’s prison. I can see the same thing happening here if our city/county leaders can’t figure out how to better deal with the underlying causes of the recidivism that has led to the jail overcrowding crisis being experienced across Montana.