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Home » Constitutional Law » Colorado Springs Decides to End Corrupt Debtor’s Prisons

Colorado Springs Decides to End Corrupt Debtor’s Prisons

homeless man holds a sign reading "seeking human kindness" while sitting in jail cellWhen people are put in jail because they don’t have enough money to pay a fine, that practice is referred to as “debtor’s prisons.” Citizens living in poverty — particularly the homeless — are by far and large the victims of such enforcement. Even petty crimes like shoplifting or jaywalking can potentially result in jail time if the court fees attached to those offenses aren’t paid according to an appointed schedule.

Maybe you aren’t in the loop, but newsflash: debtor’s prisons are illegal. If you’re surprised, you probably aren’t alone. Many people, not just the poor and the homeless, are confronted with the very real prospect of imprisonment for debt. It’s not that those without money are disproportionally targeted. They just have less protection because the only protection is, well, money. And even though debtor’s prisons have been outlawed for a long time, that fact has apparently provided little incentive for courts across the nation to adhere to that standard.

Taking all this into consideration, it’s easy to see why a recent ruling in Colorado Springs will be a breath of fresh air in the field of criminal justice. The city, working alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, has publicly announced the end of debtor’s prisons. And the news gets better! Not only will that practice be put to an end, but everyone on record for illegal imprisonment for unpaid debts are due for settlements.

Milking Those Minor Violations

Debtor’s prisons go hand in hand with probation. When people get arrested for nonviolent crimes, like marijuana possession for example, they’re sometimes offered a vague array of choices that forces them to choose between forking over a ton of money or getting punished more for not doing so. In other words, although it’s mostly the least-privileged Americans who wind up in debtor’s prisons, countless others encounter the threat — they’re just the ones who pay up.

In 2015, the ACLU of Colorado investigated debtor imprisonment in the state. Eyebrows were raised when this led to the revelation that almost 800 people were jailed in Colorado Springs for neglecting to pay fines attached to petty violations. Even more suspect, it turned out that the vast majority of those imprisoned were homeless people who were written up for stuff like sleeping on park benches or panhandling. Yep, that’s right, the courts demanding money from people for minor crimes, committed because money was the very thing they didn’t have.

Fair is Fair… Unless its Unconstitutional

Enforcing ‘the law’ is a big part of what makes it ‘the law.’ Does that mean that taking money from people is a foolproof method of enforcement across the board? The ACLU of Colorado’s attorney Mark Silverstein doesn’t think so. He thinks that it’s possible to punish people for breaking the law through other means, like community service, and he’s totally correct because there’s no way to even make a universally fair punishment. Debtor’s prisons are superficially fair at best and only to those with even a particle of imagination. As Silverstein explains,

“The law is supposed to treat us equally. So when people with means can simply pay a fine and move on and then the poor get sentenced to jail, because they’re poor, that’s a two-tiered system of justice that violates the principle of equal protection of the laws.”

It’s pretty mind-boggling that such an unconstitutional institution, as in literally unconstitutional, has apparently been practiced across the United States, to the point that it’s nearly ubiquitous. NPR investigated how funding works for the criminal justice system in 2014. The study took an entire year and spanned across all fifty states, ultimately concluding in the shocking revelation that our criminal justice system is financed mostly by offenders and the accused. Apparently we’ve been going down this road for awhile, and best of all, there’s no indication of backtracking. Or at least, there hadn’t been much until Colorado Springs.

Justice is served…

…and it is delicious. Not only will people in jail for fines instead of crimes be released, they and everyone who’s ever been imprisoned for not having enough money will be compensated $125 for each day they spent behind bars. For many, this news might come like a miracle. The vast majority of those imprisoned for failure to pay fines are homeless, which means nobody knows where they are. The ACLU and city officials are having to track them down and that’s kind of awesome. Just imagine the situation from their perspective: a police officer, one of the people responsible for your suffering, approaches to say that the police are looking for you — to give you hundreds or thousands of dollars. That would be a surprise, to say the least.

One recipient that’s already been located, Shawn Hardman, is due to receive just over $11k for the 90 days he spent in jail after failing to pay fines. What Hardman did wasn’t even illegal. Holding a sign on the side of the road to encourage money is protected by freedom of speech — a fact that’s even been recognized by rulings in Colorado. Hardman’s jail-worthy crime, his only crime, was not being able to pay the government for remembering that he was innocent. Because why should law-enforcement be responsible for knowing what the laws are?

The realization that our criminal justice system is funded by criminal is fairly unsettling. Laws are supposed to be enforced so that crimes are prevented and discouraged. If law-enforcement needs crime to pay for itself, it can’t do its job. Kind of makes us wonder whether it’s even trying to.

At Turner Law Offices, P.C., our team of attorneys has years of experience working with clients across a wide range of cases related to civil rights. We’re no stranger to the Machine and what it takes to fight it. For any offender, guilty or innocent, finding a trustworthy attorney is the first step. Legal representation is essential for securing an efficient route toward a satisfactory resolution, and the sooner you find it, the better off you are — so don’t wait! Call today, or go online to set up your free initial consultation. A skilled lawyer is ready and waiting to do whatever it takes to ensure justice is served.

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