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Bill prohibiting jail for fines heads to governor

By: The Associated Press
April 23, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2014 at 7:46 pm
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DENVER — A proposal to stop jailing poor people for being unable to pay municipal court fines is expected to be signed into law in Colorado.

A spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper said Wednesday the governor is expected to agree to the measure, which got final approval from the Colorado Legislature.

With the bill, defendants must now be instructed that if they're unable to pay a fine, they have to contact the court for a hearing to explain why they can't pay, and possibly arrange a payment plan.

Only one senator voted against the bill, which had already cleared the House. Thirty-four senators supported the measure.

The proposal is a response to concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado, which said in a report last year that failure-to-pay warrants are common in municipal courts. The ACLU said that violates U.S. and state constitutional provisions that forbid the imprisonment of people who are too poor to pay a court fine.

Sometimes, the fines imposed are for minor violations, such as traffic infractions, possessing alcohol in public, or letting a property get overgrown with weeds.

"Colorado's lawmakers have overwhelmingly agreed that our judicial system, which prides itself on equal justice for all, cannot maintain a structure in which people with means pay their fines and move on with their lives, while the poor go to jail," said Denise Maes, the public policy director of the ACLU in Colorado said in a statement.

The legislation spells out that municipal courts will be prohibited from jailing people who don't have the means to pay a fine.

Lawmakers substantially amended the proposal in response to opposition from local governments, and gave the courts greater ability to dictate payment plans.

State courts have collections investigators to establish payment plans for people who are unable to pay fines immediately, according to legislative analysts who worked on the bill. But municipal courts don't have uniform guidelines requiring payment plans, although judges there can establish plans for people unable to pay a fine, the analysts said.

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