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Debtors prisons in NH?

Sep 24, 2015

BY: CCNH-LFDA Highlights

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) has released a study that claims judges are sending many defendants to jail because they are too poor to pay fines. 

The state and federal Constitutions forbid courts from jailing defendants solely because they are too poor to pay fines.  Judges must appoint a defense lawyer and hold a hearing to explore alternatives before jail time is imposed.

ACLU-NH identified 289 cases in 2013 in which a defendant was sent to jail for not paying fines.  By studying court transcripts from a sample of those cases, ACLU-NH concluded that in roughly half of cases judges sent defendants to jail without appointing a lawyer or considering the reasons the defendant could not pay.

According to the study, jailing these individuals cost the state $166,870 in 2013, while the value of the unpaid fines was only $75,850. 

"These practices are legally prohibited, morally questionable, and financially unsound. Nevertheless, they appear to be alive and well in New Hampshire," said Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director of ACLU-NH. 

However, the study is arguably flawed because it only examined 39 of the 289 cases.  Although those 39 cases were selected randomly, 39 is still a relatively small sample size. 

Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin W. Kelly also notes that New Hampshire circuit court judges handled 83,000 cases involving fines in 2013, making the 39 cases even less representative of the whole judicial system. 

"I don't agree with the report that it's a systemic problem," said Kelly.

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