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Messenger: Another state court unanimously agrees with Missouri: Close debtors prisons
Tony’s Take

Messenger: Another state court unanimously agrees with Missouri: Close debtors prisons

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Big Springs, Idaho

Big Springs, Idaho is a natural spring that feeds the Snake River. Here, trout spawn and they grown before heading downstream. Post-Dispatch photo by Tony Messenger. 

Big Springs, Idaho, is one of those places where life begins.

There, on the western edge of the Continental Divide, water bubbles up from hot springs below and trickles down from snowfall above, through porous lava rock left from a volcanic explosion tens of thousands of years ago. It forms a shallow, crystal clear pool lined with pebbles of black obsidian. The spring produces about 120 million gallons of water a day, eventually feeding into the Snake River. Trout and salmon spawn there. The fish grow, feeding on the abundant nutrients, before they head downstream and join the food chain.

On the June day I visited this national treasure, a unanimous Idaho Supreme Court in Boise, 360 miles to the west, issued a ruling that criminal justice reform advocates hope will spawn similar decisions in other states. Much like the rulings issued in the Richey and Wright cases in 2019 by the Missouri Supreme Court, this Idaho case involved a poor person who was jailed because she couldn’t afford to pay fines and fees issued by a local court.

In 2020, when Roxana Beck was working a minimum-wage job at a Burger King, she pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of having frequented a place where drugs were sold. At her sentencing, she told the judge her hours had recently been cut and asked that any fines and fees be waived. The judge refused. Later that year, with Beck having fallen behind in her payments to the court, a warrant of attachment — which allowed her to be arrested — was issued. She was picked up by police because she owed the court $643.72. Her bond was set at $6,400. Beck spent seven days in jail.

Beck’s court-appointed attorney, Pete Wood, filed a writ of prohibition, arguing that Beck’s jailing was unconstitutional because there had been no ability-to-pay hearing, as required by the U.S. Constitution, anytime a defendant faces jail time. A group of national nonprofit groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fines and Fees Justice Center, and The Cato Institute, filed an amicus brief arguing that arresting people for failure to pay fines and fees creates separate and unequal forms of justice for poor people vs. those with financial means.

The nonprofit attorneys urged close scrutiny “when the government itself stands to benefit from collecting monetary sanctions and when aggressive collection practices, including the threat and use of incarceration, disproportionately harm vulnerable communities.”

Their argument continued: “Specifically, people with low incomes and people of color are far more likely to have monetary sanctions imposed against them but far less likely to be able to satisfy them. This effectively creates a two-tiered system of justice where the government traps those who cannot pay in a cycle of poverty and punishment while those who can pay can walk away without any additional consequence.”

A unanimous Idaho Supreme Court, in the reddest of political states, agreed with Beck and those arguing on her behalf. The judges called the issuing of arrest warrants against those who fail to pay fines and fees “constitutionally infirm.”

The Idaho Supreme Court judges saw through the ruse offered by magistrate and other lower court judges, that defendants who are behind in fines and fees are actually being arrested for other reasons, like contempt of court, as in Beck’s case.

But much like the case in Missouri, the Idaho judges declined to address what Wood calls the “root of the underlying problem,” the very imposition of fines and fees on indigent defendants. Wood is hopeful that the ruling will encourage judges to stop trying to collect such fees, now that, in Idaho at least, they can’t issue arrest warrants as a collection tool.

Jeffrey Selbin, a clinical law professor at the University of California-Berkeley, hopes that the Idaho ruling reverberates in other state courts, where problems exist with poor people being hauled off to debtors prison because too many cities, counties and states use the courts as back-door tax collectors.

“While not legally binding outside of Idaho, it’s a shot across the bow in states where courts routinely jail people for failure to pay fines and fees without establishing their ability to pay,” says Selbin, who was part of the team that filed the amicus brief. “This is what the U.S. Constitution already requires — the holding in Bearden vs. Georgia from 1983 — but it’s especially meaningful coming in a unanimous decision from a conservative supreme court in a red state.”

From Missouri on one side of the Continental Divide to Idaho on the other, American case law is being fed by a steady stream of unanimous decisions in state Supreme Courts that send a simple message: Stop putting poor people in jail simply because they are poor.

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