Nebraska’s Discriminatory Justice System Has Left 10% of State’s Children with a Parent in “Debtors’ Prison”

Saturday, December 17, 2016
(photo: Texas Jail Project)

By Ted Wheeler, Courthouse News Service


LINCOLN, Neb. (CN) — Fees and penalties in Nebraska’s judicial system have created “modern-day debtors’ prisons” so ruthless they have left 10 percent of the state’s children with a parent in jail, the ACLU says in a new report.


The 72-page report, “Unequal Justice: Bail and modern-day debtors’ prisons in Nebraska,” (pdf)  concludes that the state has created a tiered system of justice that discriminates against poor people and racial minorities by requiring bail as a condition of pretrial release even for misdemeanors, and charging fines and fees after criminal conviction.


As a result, people who cannot afford even court costs are held in jail, lose their jobs and housing, and separated from their children.


“For too many low-income Nebraskans, our justice system has become a dizzying maze of fines and fees from which they cannot escape,” said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, which wrote the report.


“People are being jailed simply because they cannot afford fines or fees set by the courts and many times these are set without an individualized inquiry into their ability to pay. The practice is unconstitutional and has devastating impacts on real Nebraska families who are torn apart by these actions,” Conrad said.


“One in 10 children in Nebraska have a parent who is behind bars,” according to the report. Coincidentally, or not, “One in 10 Nebraskans are people of color,” according to the executive summary. However, “More than five in 10 Nebraskans in jail pretrial are people of color.


“Before they even get to trial, Nebraska defendants charged with nonviolent offenses spend an average of 48 days behind bars,” the summary states. “This research shows a clear and disturbing overrepresentation of people of color behind bars in Nebraska as well.”


The ACLU calls this not only unconstitutional, but a “waste of taxpayer money and resources,” because “incarcerating low-income people prior to trial or requiring an indigent defendant to sit out a fine costs much more than counties actually recoup.”


A recurring theme in the report is that one size does not fit all economically, in fines and fees.


Lancaster County’s public defender Joe Nigro says the state’s bail and fine systems criminalize poverty.


“Pretrial release programs which screen people for risk factors and can access the level of supervision needed are more effective at assuring someone appears in court than simply rewarding the person who can come up with a set amount of money,” Nigro said. “For one person, $100 is the same as $10,000 for another.”


The report was based on in-depth studies of the state’s four largest counties, including Lancaster, home of the state capital, Lincoln.


Nebraska’s State Court Administrator Corey Steel told Courthouse News that the state is working to provide equal access to justice in its courts.


“Nebraska’s courts want to do everything possible to safely reduce the number of individuals put in jail, particularly those incarcerated for nonpayment of fines and fees. Our courts have programs in place to accept time payments, community service in lieu of payment, or the waiver of fines after seeing a good faith effort toward payment,” Steel said.


In Nebraska, $90 is deducted from an offender’s fine for each day spent in jail, about the same as court costs, according to the report.


Researchers examined court records from the four counties — Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster and Hall — and observed proceedings in 10 courtrooms while collecting the information.


Here are some of their findings:


More than half of those who cannot afford bail are people of color;


Black, Latino and Native Americans are typically charged over $10,000 more in bail than white people;


More than half of those jailed because they cannot pay bail are accused of nonviolent crimes;


The average bail for white people in the four counties jailed for nonviolent offenses was $35,256; it was $47,847 for black people, and $62,659 for Latinos.


The combined jail budget of the four counties surveyed is estimated at $73 million for the 2017 budget year, the cost of those extra days in jail is being borne by the whole community, which will “strain county budgets and burden taxpayers unnecessarily,” according to the report summary.


Stories in the report present cases of people who have suffered from the system. Janet, a 46-year-old woman who was sleeping in her car and homeless, was arrested for “soliciting donations near a roadway.” She was arrested and jailed under $1,000 bond, and told she could bail out if she could post 10 percent of it.


“I didn’t have $100,” she told the ACLU. “That’s why I was standing on the corner in the first place.”


The ACLU recommends that Nebraska establish a commission of judges, attorneys, legislators, probation officers, law enforcement and civil rights advocates to evaluate best practices in bail systems.


It recommends that the state courts develop an actuarial risk-assessment for defendants in custody, that judges ensure appointment of counsel before imposition of bail, and to stop sending poor people back to jail because they cannot afford to pay their fines.


To Learn More:

            Unequal Justice: Bail and Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons in Nebraska (ACLU) (pdf)

Judge Behind Louisiana “Debtor’s Prison” Agrees to 75-Day Break from Harsh Rulings against Poor Defendants (Associated Press)

New Orleans Criminal Court Systems Accused of Milking the Poor with Exorbitant Fees (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Debtor’s Prison Charges Leveled at Austin, Texas (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Steve Straehley, AllGov)


Kevwin 7 years ago
Your right. This has been going on since the 1990's. Our state is not going to collapse because we got Non profits. And Globalist Sponsers to make sure the change happens. Our State is merely the 11th (hidden)providence of canada!
Tyrone 7 years ago
I like how they show some black thug talking to some white trash whore from a telephone in prison while her white red headed son sits on her lap. She should be put in prison herself and let the child go live with some responsible adults.
guano crazy 7 years ago
Search terms like "are Nebraska jails for profit" and you will find the root cause of this malady. Not just Nebraska, but most State-run jails. Empty cells mean less profit for all judiciary State-run departments involved. Disgusting and no justice.
Jay 7 years ago
When you advance the idea of women's liberation, women take mens jobs and leave breadwinners broke. But decades before that can happen, women get the right to vote for bigger government and higher taxes, exactly what this article is complaining about. Since women will always be in the majority mens votes are negated by the women's vote which is mostly liberal and the headship of the man in his family is undermined to the point of divorce.In the the final stages Dads are no longer considered necessary by the state that incarcerates these husbands and fathers and women have little respect or use for men who then turn to homosexuality because women have somebody new to take care of them, the government. Then when the whole system collapses under the weight of its own corruption, women don't have a government to forcibly steal from men anymore to support their lavish lifestyles or even to feed them. And by then, the system is so broken that men can't even feed themselves.

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