A debtorsprison is a prison for people who are unable to pay debt. Through the mid 19th century, debtorsprisons (usually similar in form to locked workhouses) were a common way to deal with unpaid debt in Western Europe.  Sadly this practice has been ongoing in modern NH Courts.  The ACLU has issued a report detailing the costs, unconstitutional nature and exposed the unfairness of this practice.  Our justice system cannot tolerate these rogue judges’ actions.

ACLU report:

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 are doing it anyway. The ACLU of New
Hampshire (“ACLU-NH”) today released Debtors’ Prisons in New HampshireDebtors’ 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
“Being poor is not a crime in this country,” said Devon Chaffee,
Executive Director of the ACLU-NH. “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
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.
“Supreme Court precedent and New Hampshire law make clear that local
courts and jails should not function as debtors’ prisons,” said Albert
E. Scherr, a Professor of Law at the University of New Hampshire School
of Law and Chairman of the ACLU-NH Board of Directors. “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,” said Gilles Bissonnette,
Legal Director of the ACLU-NH. “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.”
“These practices are legally prohibited, morally questionable, and
financially unsound. Nevertheless, they appear to be alive and well in
New Hampshire,” added Bissonnette.

September 23, 2015
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