Debtor’s Prison: Colorado Springs Judgement Should be a Warning for Missoula

by William Skink

I wrote this post about the return of the debtor’s prison two years ago after reading a Nation article about how a town turned poverty into a prison sentence. Since then, the ACLU went after the city of Colorado Springs and recently won, forcing Colorado Springs to pay out settlement money for jailing people too poor to afford paying their fines. From the link:

People who fail to pay their fines in Colorado Springs will no longer be sent to prison.

The city council has eliminated debtor prison sentences, making a temporary ban permanent.

According to the Colorado Springs Gazette, the city agreed to stop imposing jail sentences for unpaid fines and to repeal panhandling ordinances that were used to authorize that practice after the American Civil Liberties Union intervened.

Colorado ACLU director Mark Silverstein says a fund needs to be set up to compensate people who were wrongly jailed.

The ACLU says a survey found that hundreds of poor people had been jailed since January 2014 because they couldn’t pay their fines.

In Missoula, it is not accurate to state that our aggressive solicitation (panhandling) and pedestrian interference (sitting on a sidewalk with a bunch of gear) ordinances come with no jail time. Though the ordinances don’t explicitly allow jail time to be imposed for violating the ordinances, when the fines aren’t paid, warrants are issued for “failure to appear”.

Late last month, the 100 page jail diversion plan was finally completed and delivered to city officials to begin reviewing. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this plan. From the link:

McDermott says the jail is simply the wrong place for many inmates who struggle with addiction and mental illness, and can make a dangerous work environment for jail staff.

“And these people truly should not be in our jail,” McDermott said. “Our jail is not a facility that can provide the proper care and treatment for addicts or detox, as well as mental health episodes that need to be hospitalized.”

Presented ideas included adjusting the way warrants are issued and re-evaluating over 11,000 active warrants that are in effect now. They also highlighted the use of alternatives to incarceration like community service, house arrest and sobriety monitoring.

After the presentation, the floor was opened to public comment. Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks voiced her support for most of the proposal, but also shared concerns.

“You can’t force any of this on the judges,” Jenks said. “You can’t tell a judge how they’re going to sentence. You can’t tell a judge what warrants they can put out. You can’t tell a judge how to set the bonds. There’s a system in place for that.”

For most people, when they get caught engaging in some minor infraction that warrants a ticket and a fine, they pay the fine because the normal consequences of not paying–like damaging reports impacting your credit score–is enough to inspire compliance. But for manny of the “repeat offenders”, coercing compliance is much more difficult.

So what happens when fines aren’t a deterrent? What happens when even jail isn’t the consequence it was intended to be? What can you take from poor people who have nothing left to take?

Colorado Springs is being forced to pay up by the ACLU for running its debtor’s prison. I can see the same thing happening here if our city/county leaders can’t figure out how to better deal with the underlying causes of the recidivism that has led to the jail overcrowding crisis being experienced across Montana.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Debtor’s Prison: Colorado Springs Judgement Should be a Warning for Missoula

  1. JC says:

    And in South Dakota, even if you’re innocent and have been appointed a public defender, you have to pay the court $92/hour for that defense.

    “The Argus Leader is reporting that South Dakota is sending criminal defendants a bill if they were represented by a public defender, sometimes for thousands of dollars worth of legal work that defendants can’t afford to pay. When the bills go unpaid, defendants are subject to further arrest and incarceration.”

  2. steve kelly says:

    Followed by forced labor camps? Another Krakauer book in the making: “Missoula: Montana’s Gulag.”

  3. Greg Strandberg says:

    Anyone got any ideas on what “the underlying causes of the recidivism that has led to the jail overcrowding crisis being experienced across Montana” might be?

    • JC says:

      * Lack of services for addicted, homeless and mentally ill people.

      * Lack of affordable housing and jobs that pay well enough to survive in a brutal housing market.

      * Lack of diversion programs to keep people from becoming incarcerated so long that they feel that living in a prison culture is preferable to living on the outside and competing in a society that has permanently marked them in orange and discriminates against them. Not to mention that many survival skills learned in prison basically don’t work well on the outside.

      * Growing up in a family or community that views doing time as normal behavior.

      Pretty basic stuff.

      And that doesn’t even begin to touch on larger issues like: economic inequity; drug laws that penalize based on race; class inequity in sentencing; corruption in our justice system; conversion of our prison system to a private, industrial one; an overclass immune to prosecution and imprisonment that breeds contempt for law and order; yada, yada, yada…

      Pick one, any one, and run with it and you’ll find an underlying cause.

  4. JC, did you read Brouwer’s Indy piece yet? here is one quote that jumped out:

    Existing pretrial supervision options are inadequate and in some cases may be counterproductive, the report concludes. Many defendants released from jail are placed in a strict pretrial supervision program run by local contractor Missoula Correctional Services. The program’s conditions are too onerous and costly for some low-risk offenders, which research suggests can actually lead to worse outcomes, according to the report. It cites the pretrial program’s “relatively high” failure rate, but says a full evaluation of the program was limited because MCS refused to share its arrest and sanction policies with the report’s authors.

    maybe some journalists out there would like to dig into WHY exactly MCS refused to share information. is Sue Wilkins (wife of city councilman, Jon Wilkins) hiding something?

    I think what is emerging is a critical look at how much misdemeanor supervision is contributing to jail overcrowding. there is a reason Sue Wilkins stonewalled people involved with this report, which is too bad, because now the report is not as conclusive as it needs to be. I don’t think the money Missoula is spending on the contract with MCS is being spent wisely.

    • JC says:

      Well, everything I know and hear about the private pretrial, or pre sentencing supervision contractors is that the whole program is rife with corruption. And the longer the supervision is drawn out — maximum length to trial and sentencing — the larger the profits for the contractor who charges large fees for all the monitoring, and devices, and meetings, etc. And if you waive your right to a speedy trial, you can be in the grasp of the contractors for well over a year, spending thousands of dollars, like one friend of ours.

      another kid spent 2 months in the hamilton jail as he had no resources for pretrial sup. for a couple of text messages sent while under a protective order. that’s what justice has come to — have enough resources to feed the private contractors’ greed, or spend inordinate time in jail.

      There’s hundreds (probably thousands) of anecdotes like this. An investigative report from the offenders’ perspectives would be incredibly revealing.

      Then there’s this:

      “…McDermott says. He’s particularly hopeful city and county leaders can convince the hospitals to help finance a mental health crisis facility and detox services for addicts.”

      What goes unsaid is the Providence had such a facility until 10 years ago when it was closed, as insurance carriers interfered too seriously with treatment, and there was no money to be made in charity care on the level needed to provide a meaningful service. Figure 15 grand a month for the 15 beds there, half paid for results in over a million a year in charity care, and the need is ten times that.

      RCM had plans for another 40 bed or so facility out at the Fort, but hasn’t embarked on it yet (as far as I know) as funders and insurers aren’t cooperating with their model. McDermott is on fantasy island if he thinks he can get folks to pressure hospitals to provide the 10’s of millions of dollars annually to cover the community’s need here, on top of everything they’re already providing.

      Then where do you place folks post-incarcertion or post-treatment after a month in treatment or 6 months in jail? There’s absolutely no meaningful halfway houses, so courts again rely on private contractors, which rely on ISP (intensive supervision, e.g. high tech) to handle the other side of the equation.

  5. Big Swede says:

    When I was a young boy in the sixties we used to travel once a year to Yellowstone Park. The highlight of our trip was watching the bears. And just where would we go to see bears? To the Yellowstone dump grounds. Back then the bears roamed in large numbers feeding on the garbage in the open pit. Occasionally we see groups next to the roads looking for tourists for handouts.

    Late in the sixties the park department shut down the pit, it wasn’t beneficial to bear genetics turning self sufficient large carnivores into dumpster divers. They also started enforcing new park rules on road side feedings. The results of these actions made bear watching a non-guaranteed event. The bears went back to providing for themselves.

    Bears are different from people tho. Bears don’t vote.

    • JC says:

      Bears may have gone back to providing for themselves, but federal regulations protected their habitat and security needs from (human) predators. Who’s going to protect the indigent from human predators until they can get their feet back on the ground?

Leave a Reply