ACLU-NH Lawyers, Judges Mull Changes To Stop Jailing People Who Can’t Pay Court Fines

Print More

Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH legal director

ACLU-NH lawyers who released “Debtors’ Prisons in New Hampshire” Wednesday met today with top circuit court judges to focus on how to make sure no one goes to jail for being too poor to pay their court fines.

Edwin W. Kelly, administrative judge of the Circuit Courts, disagrees with the ACLU-NH’s conclusion that judges routinely jail people who can’t afford to pay their court fines. Kelly said he doesn’t think the issue is a “systemic problem.”

But Kelly said it is important to work with the ACLU-NH to do “everything to protect the rights of people. I believe in any bureaucracy there is room for improvement.”

Kelly met with Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU-NH’s legal director, and Albert W. Scherr, chairman of ACLU-NH’s board of directors and law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

They specifically addressed possible changes to court protocols and a change to a court rule that would “make it clear that no defendant can be ordered to jail for nonpayment without counsel or written waiver of counsel,” Kelly said.

Kelly said he is working with Bissonnette and Scherr to develop training for the 60 circuit court judges in early 2016.

Bissonnette said in an email: “(Albert W.) Buzz Scherr and I did meet with Judges Kelly and (David) King today. It was a very productive discussion.

“We look forward to continuing this collaboration to work towards a resolution to this issue,” Bissonnette said.

The ACLU-NH report was the result of a yearlong investigation. It estimated 148 people were jailed without a proper hearing in 2013 for failing to pay court fines.

The practice cost taxpayers an estimated $166,870 for about $75,850 in unpaid fines that were ultimately never collected, the report said.

In a news release Wednesday, Bissonnette said: “These practices are legally prohibited, morally questionable, and financially unsound. Nevertheless, they appear to be alive and well in New Hampshire.”