Jared Thornburg, a 29-year-old man in Colorado was sentenced in 2012 by the Westminster Municipal Court to serve a ten-day stint in jail because he was unable to pay a $165 fine. The fine had been issued for driving a vehicle with defective equipment, which is a non-jailable traffic offense. Thornburg was unemployed and claims he was simply too poor to pay off his fine and was particularly frustrated that at the time he had job lined up at a fast food restaurant, which he subsequently lost due to his jail time. With more and more cases like Thornburg’s being documented, the American Civil Liberties Union has joined forces with Colorado Representative Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) to pass legislation to change the current law and the ACLU states that forcing poor people to pay fines is unconstitutional.
Representative Salazar is less well-known in the media for defending the poor than he is for his controversial comments about rape in 2013 while he was debating a gun control bill. However, his concerns with what is often termed as, “debtor’s prison” or “pay or serve” warrants, fall in line with his stated legal focus on civil rights and constitutional issues.
Current law in Colorado states that if an individual criminal defendant fails to pay a fine, a prison sentence is to be issued and the debtor must either remit the full amount of the fine or, by serving time in jail, pay the fine down according to a per diem rate set by the court. According to the ACLU, examples of that sentence carried out include the case of a homeless man who spent four days in jail because he could not pay a $190 fine for possession of marijuana paraphernalia. In another case, a disabled and homeless woman served 15 days in jail because she could not pay $671 in fines and court costs.
In 2013, the ACLU conducted an in-depth investigation into three municipal courts in Colorado and determined that these courts issued warrants that mandated full payment or a punishment of jail time on a routine basis without regard for the ability of the defendant to pay any such fines. The core of this issue seems to be that in the majority of these cases, debtors are not given the opportunity to state why they cannot pay their fines nor if in fact, they are making legitimate attempts to do so. In the case of Thornburg, it is possible that his employment opportunity at the fast food restaurant would have allowed him to pay his fine of $165 without serving a jail sentence.
Salazar and the ACLU want changes implemented into current Colorado law including language that mandates that a court, when imposing a “monetary payment” as part of a criminal sentence must notify the defendant that, “…if he or she is unable to pay the amount ordered, the defendant may ask the court for a waiver or change in the payment.” There are also provisions for creating a payment plan and Salazar says these measures will cause the courts “…to follow our constitutional provision of not putting poor people in prison because they can’t pay a debt.” The bill does include language addressing the case of defendants that have the ability to pay, but willfully refuse to do so. In such cases, the court may hold them in contempt and sentence them to serve jail time.
The Colorado Municipal League is against amending the current law and claims that Salazar’s bill puts an undue burden on courts “…to prove someone is willfully disobeying an order.” Salazar however, has made clear that his most important goal is to keep “financially struggling people from being locked up over relatively small, but for them, unmanageable fines.” For his part, Thornburg is now gainfully employed and hopes the proposed bill will pass. He would like the courts to improve their communications with defendants and, as he puts it, “…have a thing called mercy.”
By Alana Marie Burke
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