Debtors’ prisons are thought of as a thing of the past. In fact, the use of debtors’ prisons is usually considered to be a more ancient practice than public hangings. But, quietly, debtors’ prisons have reemerged in a number of municipal courts.
The term “debtors’ prison” refers to the practice of locking a person up for inability to pay a fine and/or court fees. Because municipal court practices vary from one to the next, there’s no universal model for how debtors’ prisons work. For example, in some municipal courts the judge will assign a defendant to jail at their arraignment (a defendant’s initial court hearing) upon the very moment the defendant admits they’ll be unable to pay either their fine or fees in full. In other municipal courts, the judge might wait until a defendant says they can’t pay in full after being granted a one or two-month extension to pay. But, really, judges are free to decide at any point that a defendant has had enough time to attempt to pay and, if they choose, to sentence them to spend time in jail to pay off their fine.
The history of attempts to prohibit debtors’ prisons is rather interesting. Though twelve states abolished debtors’ prisons in the nineteenth century, the practice has never been officially abolished by the federal government.1 In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Bearden v. Georgia that defendants could only be jailed for failing to pay a fine if they had the resources to do so but willfully refused to pay. In Colorado, House Bill 14-1061 prohibited courts from issuing arrest warrants for those who failed to pay fines.2 This came in addition to Article II, Section 12 of the Colorado Constitution, which states that “No person shall be imprisoned for debt.” Greeley also has a law on the books that outlaws debtors’ prisons. Greeley Municipal Code 1.24.040 states that “Every person against whom any fine or penalty is adjudged, who has not been adjudged destitute and who refuses or neglects to pay the fine or penalty, shall be committed to the county jail.”
But many municipal courts have found loopholes in such laws and bills that have allowed debtors’ prisons to remain operational. In Colorado, the cities of Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and Northglenn have all been under scrutiny in recent years for their part in practices relating to debtors’ prisons.3 The municipal court system here in Greeley is a positive example of efforts to rid the justice system of debtors’ prisons. Unlike the municipal courts of Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and Northglenn, Greeley Municipal Court screens defendants for indigence to assure that no one is jailed merely for failure to pay fines.
This means that in Greeley there aren’t as many stories that resemble those heard elsewhere. Like the story of Linda Roberts in Wheat Ridge, a disabled homeless woman who was placed in jail for fifteen days in order to pay off her debt of $671 arising from a shoplifting case.4 Or the story of Jared Thornburg in Westminster, who spent ten days in jail for his inability to pay a $165 fine for driving a defective vehicle.5 And, hopefully, Greeley will never be home to stories like that of Jamycheal Mitchell in Virginia, a mentally ill man who was found dead in his jail cell after spending four months behind bars for stealing a total of $5 worth of food from a 7-Eleven.6
Stories like these have become more and more prevalent since the late 2000s. Beginning with the over-criminalization that started in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s, the use of debtors’ prisons intensified with the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. Now, as fees rise and the push towards privatization increases, the concept of the offender-based model is leading the way into the next decade. This model places the tab for operating the justice system squarely on those convicted of violations. This incentivizes municipal courts to look for additional ways to sweep up more and more citizens and enter them into the justice system as a means of paying for criminal justice services as opposed to raising taxes or reducing criminalization instead. Such practices mean that debtors’ prisons may only just be beginning to take off since it’s much easier to hide such violations of civil liberties from scrutiny when the public’s tax money isn’t as involved.
Debtors’ prisons aren’t just a problem because they contradict fundamental principles of justice, ruin people’s lives, or appear bad on the surface. They’re also a problem because they represent fiscal irresponsibility on the part of city and county governments. Take the debtors’ prison operating in Jefferson County in 2013. Between the months of February and June of 2013, Jefferson County Jail imprisoned 154 individuals for failing to pay municipal fines and/or court fees.7 The total cost of imprisonment cost more than $70,000, even though the total of the fines to be collected only amounted to $40,000. This meant Jefferson County taxpayers lost out on at least $30,000 to support this unconstitutional practice.
The scale of ineffective and wasteful spending in maintaining debtors’ prisons would probably shock most people. Take Benton County in Washington as just one example of a municipality that spends an alarming amount of money, time, and resources on maintaining debtors’ prisons. According to an article written by Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio (NPR), “On a typical day, about a quarter of the people who were in jail for misdemeanor offenses were there because they had failed to pay their court fines and fees.”8 That means that if Benton County had just 40 individuals in jail on misdemeanor charges, 10 would be there for fines and fees alone. If the cost of housing each inmate was $70 per day (as was the cost in Jefferson County), that would mean Benton County spent $700 per day to operate their debtors’ prison. In the words of Jared Thornburg, “They spent a lot more putting me in jail for 10 days than the amount I owed them.”9
2 HB14-1061 passed the Colorado House of Legislatures and the Senate in April 2014. The law can be found in Colorado Revised Statutes, C.R.S. 18-1.3-702.
5 See 4.
9 See 8.