The U.S. Constitution and New Hampshire state law prohibit courts from jailing people for being too poor to pay their legal fines, but local courts throughout New Hampshire have been doing it anyway. On September 23, 2015, the ACLU-NH released Debtors’ Prisons in New Hampshire, a report that chronicles a year-long investigation into New Hampshire’s debtors’ prison practices.
This investigation was initiated after the ACLU-NH handled three cases in 2014 where two Superior Court Judges and the New Hampshire Supreme Court granted relief to three indigent individuals—Alejandra Corro, Richard Vaughan, and Dennis Suprenant—who were (or were going to be) illegally jailed by circuit courts due to their inability to pay fines. These cases, which are described in the “Personal Stories” section of the report, show that debtors’ prison practices can counterproductively lead to termination of an individual’s new employment, impede ongoing efforts of that individual to gain employment, and prevent struggling parents from caring for their infant children.
The law requires that courts hold hearings to determine defendants’ financial status before jailing them for failure to pay fines, and defendants must be provided with lawyers for these hearings. If a defendant cannot pay, the court must explore options other than jail. Yet circuit courts in New Hampshire routinely jail people without making any attempt whatsoever to determine whether they can afford to pay their fines.
Beyond its clear illegality, debtors’ prison practices make no financial sense since the government spends more to jail defendants than it ever recovers in fines. As the report explains, it costs New Hampshire’s county jails approximately $110 per day to house an individual, yet an individual serves off a fine at a rate of $50 per day. This $50 per day amount will never be paid back to the government once that time is served. Based on the data received and this $110 per day cost, the report concludes that the total costs of these practices to taxpayers statewide can be reasonably approximated to $166,870 in 2013 to address an estimated $75,850 in unpaid fines that were ultimately never collected.
Not only are these courts violating the law, they are actually causing the government to lose money doing it. As the report demonstrates, in jailing people who are unable to pay fines, the government is spending more money than the individual owed in the first place.
The ACLU-NH and the administrative judges of the Circuit Courts jointly proposed changes to the Circuit Court Rules that would have addressed this issue, including by providing court-appointed counsel to those defendants facing jail due to their inability to pay a fine. These proposed changes were recommended by a majority of the Advisory Committee on Rules to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The proposed rule changes can be found here. Our joint submission addressing our proposed rule changes can be found here.
In June 2016, the legislature enacted and the Governor signed SB200, which will help curb debtors’ prison practices in New Hampshire. This bipartisan bill will appoint counsel when an indigent defendant is threatened with jail for being unable to pay a fine.
On October 17, 2016, the New Hampshire Supreme Court rejected the bulk of the rules recommended by the majority of the Advisory Committee on Rules. The Court rejected these rules principally on the ground that this issue – particularly the right to counsel — should be left to the legislature.
Cooperating Attorney: Albert (Buzz) E. Scherr, Professor of Law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law