The ACLU is reporting that many cities in Colorado have joined several other states in putting people in jail if they can’t afford to pay the fines imposed on them as a condition of parole or probation, a perfect way to make sure that they can never move on after paying their debt to society.
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 countiesutilize 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.
This kind of thing is absolute madness. Someone breaks the law, they go to prison and serve their sentence, but when they get out they find that they owe the county or state thousands of dollars, sometimes more, in fees and penalties stemming from their incarceration or as a condition of their parole. If you were to design a system to maintain a permanent criminal underclass, you could hardly do any better than that.