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Legal groups challenging policies that jail poor over fines

Many cities in Colorado and other states rely on court fines and fees to balance their departmental budgets. Some defendants who are unable to pay their fines are jailed or placed on probation until they pay off the debt. This sometimes occurs even if the individual hasn't been convicted of a crime. In response, an increasing number of legal organizations are fighting to raise awareness about these practices and bring them to an end.

Back in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to imprison people who lack the funds to pay court fines and fees. However, that hasn't stopped many cities and counties, underfunded due to their reluctance to raise taxes, from using their court systems as a revenue-generating arm. Further, when people can't pay, some counties pass the debts to for-profit debt collection companies, which add up to 30% in fees to the unpaid balance and threaten to have debtors arrested. Some of those who are jailed are forced to pay for their incarceration, creating a mountain of debt that is nearly impossible to pay off. It also causes many people to lose their jobs, lose custody of their children and get divorced.

Several legal organizations are now fighting against these practices. For example, Civil Right Corps has filed over 20 lawsuits in Oklahoma challenging policies that use defendants to fund the court system. In addition, the Vera Institute of Justice New Orleans is pushing to make New Orleans the first U.S. city to eliminate all court fees, including fines and bail money. Part of the group's argument is that it costs the city more to jail defendants who can't pay fines than to simply fund the court system from its own tax-funded coffers.

A criminal defense attorney may be able to help defendants facing court fees and penalties they cannot pay. The attorney may review a defendant's case and do everything possible to protect his or her future.

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