New Hampshire residents may assume that jail inmates are behind bars because they have been convicted of committing a crime, but this is not necessarily true. Thousands of people are sent to state prisons each year before their trials have even started because they cannot afford to post bail, and many more languish behind bars because they lack the funds to pay fines for minor motor vehicle offenses. The practice of incarcerating people simply because they lack financial means has been branded a war on poor Americans by civil rights groups, but their efforts to reform the system have been met with fierce resistance.
The problem that groups like the Civil Rights Corps face is that many cash-strapped municipalities have become reliant on the revenue they generate by charging fees and collecting fines. In many parts of the country, fines and fees are used to fund courts and district attorney’s offices, and judges who choose to waive them are sometimes required to provide a written explanation. The situation persists despite the Supreme Court ruling more than 30 years ago that incarcerating individuals because they are too poor to pay fines is unconstitutional.
Senior judges have also demanded change. The Conference of Chief Justices has placed bail, fines and fees reform on its list of urgent priorities, and a list of principles released in 2018 by a nationwide task force of senior court officials and judges called for courts to be funded by the government and not used to collect revenue.
Individuals who are sent to jail because they lack the funds to post bail may lose their jobs and find themselves on a path that can be difficult to escape from. When representing such a client, experienced criminal defense attorneys may remind prosecutors of this and urge them to allow individuals who are accused of committing minor crimes to be released on their own recognizance.