Does NH have a debtors prison problem?

Oct 21, 2016

BY: CCNH-LFDA Highlights

In October the state Supreme Court rejected a rule change that would have appointed a lawyer for anyone about to go to jail for failing to pay a fine.

In 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) published a study that found state judges were sending defendants to jail without investigating alternatives to payment. The state and federal Constitutions forbid courts from jailing defendants solely because they are too poor to pay fines. 

As a result of that study, a judicial branch rules committee proposed a change that would guarantee representation for debtors facing jail time.

The state Supreme Court rejected that change, arguing that the constitutional right to a lawyer only applies in criminal cases. Failing to pay a fine is a civil matter.

"Neither this court nor the United States Supreme Court has held that such a right [to counsel] is mandated under the New Hampshire or the United States Constitutions. That being the case, the court concludes that the creation of such a right as a matter of public policy, whether permanently or on a so-called 'pilot' basis, is a matter properly left to the New Hampshire legislature." 

"The ACLU-NH looks forward to working with the legislature to address the serious concerns left unresolved by the Court’s new rules," said University of New Hampshire Law Professor Buzz Scherr

Do you think New Hampshire residents should have a right to a lawyer before they are sent to prison for failing to pay a fine? Share your opinion in the comments.

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