Ending debtors prisons in Colorado continues to be a battle, but help from the legislature has already had an impact.  Aurora CO municipal court released a statement saying they were dismissing 4400 failure to pay fines and fees warrants to be in compliance with a newly enacted statute.

Despite legislation in 2013 requiring ability to pay hearings, and defining inability to pay as one which would cause “manifest hardship to the defendant or defendant’s dependents” the debtors prison problem persists. In one situation in Alamos CO, a judge made an off the record comment, “She has some really nice gold earrings, if she shows up in court with those again, she doesn’t know this but that is evidence to me of ability to pay. They look real nice, but my question is going to be ‘Did you try to pawn those earrings?’ When the answer is no, that’s ability to pay.”

Since the courts appear unwilling to address the problem, the legislature was once again called upon to make changes. This year, two statutes were passed and are in compliance with the NAPD Principles Governing the Collection of Money in Criminal Cases.  The First statute requires municipal courts to provide counsel at the very first court appearance. Too many people take same day plea deals without counsel to get out of jail and are given no advice on how to address the inability to pay fines and fees. Counsel at the first appearance can give advice on all the collateral consequences of any deal.
The second statute is aimed to reign in the constant shakedown of poor people in municipal courts. Now, courts can no longer set hearings for every date a payment is due or issue contempt of court citations when a person does not come to court to make the payment (NAPD principle #6).  In addition, the legislature took the step of further defining an ability to pay and created a rebuttable presumption of inability to pay if the person is homeless, or living in subsidized housing, receiving TANF, or living at the poverty line (found in NAPD principle #5).

Once again, we will watch the courts.  Aurora has made a promising first step by dismissing the warrants they had been issuing for contempt of court for failing to pay fines and fees. But time has told us that no matter the legislation, or the DOJ letters, or public outcry, courts are under pressure to collect money and our clients are easy targets. Our job continues to be fighting for each client, one at a time, to make sure the rules are actually put into practice.