CONCORD – Friday, June 2, 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.
This bill followed a one-and-one-half year process of data collection and analysis by the ACLU-NH and University of New Hampshire Law Professor Buzz Scherr, which culminated in a report published on September 23, 2015. As the report explained, debtors’ prison practices were occurring in New Hampshire. However, the U.S. Constitution and New Hampshire state law prohibit courts from jailing people for being too poor to pay their legal fines.
Moreover, such practices make no financial sense since the government spends more to jail defendants than it ever recovers in fines. It costs New Hampshire’s county jails approximately $110 per day to house an individual, yet fines are not repaid when a person is jailed in lieu of a fine repayment. 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.
“Being poor is not a crime in this country,” said Professor Buzz Scherr, who co-authored the ACLU-NH report. “Incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fines is both unconstitutional and cruel. It takes a tremendous toll on precisely those families already struggling the most. The legislature recognized this by ensuring that, if a judge is considering jailing a person for not paying a fine, that person must have a lawyer to ensure that this person is not going to be jailed simply for being poor.”
“We are grateful for the support of the Governor, the legislator, and the court system on this important bill. This bill had the approval of virtually all the stakeholders in the criminal justice system,” said Devon Chaffee, the ACLU-NH Executive Director who co-authored the ACLU-NH report. “We are particularly grateful for the support of Governor Sununu, Senators Sharon Carson (R), Jeb Bradley (R), Dan Feltes (D), and Representatives Claire Rouillard (R) and Paul Berch (D). This legislation could also not have passed without the support of N.H. Circuit Court Administrative Judges Edwin Kelly and David King.”
Please visit the ACLU-NH’s Debtors’ Prison Report for more information on this work.