EDITORIAL: Successes in jail-breaking the poor mean cities and state should look for more


State lawmakers this year worked to end Colorado’s resurgence of U.S. debtor’s prisons, and the change signals that lawmakers should go further.

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law House Bill 1061, which prohibits state municipalities from jailing people because they can’t pay court fees and fines. 

prisonsIt was a shocking revelation, led primarily by the American Civil Liberties Union, detailing the fact that poor people are frequently jailed because they sometimes cannot pay even minor fines for misdemeanor offenses. A National Public Radio story earlier this month revealed that a Minnesota man was jailed for three days because he couldn’t pay the fine for catching an out-of-season bass, thinking it was an in-season small-mouth bass.

In Colorado, similar stories abound where cities such as Wheat Ridge, Thornton and Northglenn routinely send people to overcrowded county jails for being unable to pay court fines or fees. Right now, Aurora has to rent jail space from other jurisdictions in the metro area because the Adams County jail can’t handle its current jail population. Aurora, as a policy, does not jail people for being unable to pay court fees or fines.

The local stories were shocking not only because most people figured debtor’s prisons went away with Charles Dickens, but because repeated state and federal supreme court rulings prohibited imprisoning people for being poor.

The practice was critically shortsighted and unproductive in that it often did nothing but exacerbate troubles that easily plague the poor and help to keep them poor and dysfunctional. A man who can’t pay his court fines for car-insurance violations can’t get a job to buy insurance when he’s in jail. But most important, the practice means that inability to pay creates one system of justice for the poor, one that imposes incarceration, and another one for those with means: a dip in the wallet.

In the end, it’s unclear whether either punishment has much effect. Given the success here this year, state and city lawmakers should look at ways to further reduce expensive jail and prison populations, which clearly do little to reduce the rate of recidivism.

Recent successes by the state in clearing out state prisons, such as helping inmates get ready for life on the outside and reducing prison sentences by rewarding exemplary behavior, could easily be expanded locally. Getting uneducated inmates in prisons and jails to study and complete GED programs and trade programs should be a priority. Rewarding them with early release only works to ensure poor, troubled inmates get out to become parolees who have a much better chance at beating poverty and trouble.

Arapahoe County has already had great success in keeping mentally ill people out of prison and instead put them on the road to recovery through an innovative mental health court. That model should be duplicated in Aurora’s municipal court, where domestic violence and vandalism eats up untold court and police hours and endless thousands of tax dollars often chasing the same people on numerous occasions.

In the end, we’re coming to learn what everyone already pretty much knew: jail and prison is useful in harboring people who are clearly a danger to others. But as a form of punishment, it does little more in most cases than to burn through taxpayer cash and keep people caught doing unwanted things doing even more unwanted things.