Supreme Court: No End To 'Debtor's Prison' In N.H.

Oct 19, 2016

Credit Credit mikecogh via Flickr Creative Commons

The issue of “debtors' prisons” in New Hampshire will now likely come before the Legislature. That’s after the state’s highest court rejected change in court rules that would guarantee an attorney for people facing jail time for unpaid court fines. 

Nearly a year ago, the NH ACLU released a report highlighting the practice of jailing people in New Hampshire who don’t pay court fines, and denying poor people in that situation access to an attorney.  

In August, a judicial rulemaking committee of primarily judges and attorneys voted 8-7 to change court rules.

They argued anyone facing jail time has a constitutional right to a lawyer. 

The New Hampshire Supreme Court disagreed. In an order on Monday, four out of five justices rejected most of the committee’s recommendations, saying people do not have a constitutional right to a lawyer when facing jail-time for “civil contempt,” including nonpayment of fines.  

This gets at the legal dispute between the committee majority and the Supreme Court as to whether a hearing about payment of fines is a civil or criminal issue, and whether it qualifies as a contempt proceeding. 

The court also maintained that debtors’ access to credit lines may be considered “in determining whether a person has the ability to pay,” an element of the existing rules which the committee had hoped to change.

Court fines under consideration include fees for attorneys appointed for indigent criminal defendants and fines levied during sentencing.   As it stands today, it is not constitutional to jail someone for an inability to pay court fines, only a willful refusal to pay. So, individuals with outstanding court fines can get access to payment plans or pay off their debts through community service. 

But according to a report from the NH ACLU,  many jailed for nonpayment are not “willfully refusing to pay despite having sufficient resources,” as state law requires for incarceration. In three cases taken up by that organization in 2014, higher courts overturned Circuit Court judges’ decisions to incarcerate individuals for failing to pay.   

Next, the NH ACLU and other advocates would have to bring their arguments to the state legislature.