Bills introduced to address practices that trap poor people in the criminal justice system

Bills introduced by Sen. Morfeld and Sen. Hansen address court fines and fees in Nebraska

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
January 13, 2017 2:45 pm

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LINCOLN, Neb – Today Sen. Adam Morfeld introduced LB 395, a bill that seeks to end excessive bail amounts for people awaiting trial. Sen. Matt Hansen introduced LB 145 earlier in this session which addresses fines and fees in Nebraska’s court system. These bills follow an investigation from the ACLU of Nebraska that was released in December. The investigation found that in Nebraska’s four largest counties, which spend over $73 million on Corrections, nearly half of the jail population simply could not afford to pay bond, with most the pretrial population being nonviolent offenders.

“No one should be in jail simply because they are poor,” said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad. “Too many low-income Nebraskans get trapped in a dizzying maze of fines and fees with no escape in sight. We applaud Sen. Morfeld and Sen. Hansen who are learning from many of our sister states: ending modern-day debtor’s prisons and reforming bail are a win-win that saves taxpayer dollars, protects public safety and ensures that justice doesn’t depend on the size of one’s bank account.”

“Nebraskans who have not been convicted of a crime are ending up in jail for weeks–and in some cases months–at a time,” said Morfeld. “I’ve introduced this legislation to help focus our taxpayer dollars where they will do the most good and prevent people who are poor from getting trapped in our criminal justice system, while at the same time ensuring that those who deserve to be in custody awaiting trial are in jail.”

Mary Ann Borgeson, Chair of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners, echoed the need for reform.

“Counties around the country are finding that they can reduce spending on Corrections by making smart reforms to the way fines and fees are imposed,” said Borgeson. “We should not be infringing upon people’s civil rights and incarcerating nonviolent offenders simply because they are poor and cannot afford to pay. I encourage all of Nebraska’s senators to help ease the burden on county budgets by putting these common-sense reforms into action.”

For people who are poor, the consequences of even a couple days of jail can be severe.

“Our current bond and fine systems criminalize poverty,” said Joe Nigro, Lancaster County Public Defender. “One night in jail can mean the loss of a job, housing, and custody of children. If a bond requiring money is set, the primary factor considered by the court must be the person’s ability to pay. Our current system discriminates against the poor.”

“Nebraska should not be operating a modern-day debtors’ prison,” said Hansen. “It will ultimately cost our courts less to inquire about ability to pay and make adjustments than the current practice of sentencing people to days or weeks of jail to sit out fines for municipal violations and other nonviolent offenses.”

While the ACLU and other advocates say Nebraska’s existing law has protections for people who are poor that other states lack, the findings of their investigation say there’s significant room for improvement.

“These bills by Sen. Morfeld and Sen. Hansen strengthen Nebraska’s existing laws requiring courts to take into consideration a person’s ability to pay,” added Conrad. “The current practices in Nebraska do not match the letter of the law and these bills provide much needed clarification for our criminal justice system.”

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