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Idaho Joins Missouri in Banning Incarceration for Inability To Pay Court Fines, Fees

by Jayson Hawkins

It is no secret that in most prisons, poverty is the characteristic most often shared by prisoners. Some countries are trying to reduce crime by reducing poverty. But in many American states a different tactic is used: They criminalize being poor.

Take what happened to Roxanna Beck. She owed $643 to the magistrate court in Elmore County, Idaho, stemming from a misdemeanor involving no jail time. When she could not pay, the court had her arrested. Fortunately, on June 24, 2021, the Idaho Supreme Court ruled this practice “constitutionally infirm,” just as a Missouri court did in 2019.

In that earlier case, state judges were locking people up for not paying “bills” for their room and board during their primary incarceration. Then, when the subsequent incarceration led to an even bigger bill which still could not be paid, it led to still more incarceration. The Missouri Supreme Court banned the practice, saying it lacked clear statutory authority in state law. See: State v. Richey, 569 S.W.3d 420 (Mo. 2019).

The more recent case in Idaho was brought by Beck, who pleaded guilty in February 2020 to the misdemeanor crime of “frequenting a place where controlled substances were used, sold, or manufactured,” the state Supreme Court recalled, in violation of Idaho Code § 37-2732(d). She received no jail time. But she was fined $150, charged another $197.50 in court costs and ordered to pay $291 in restitution to the state lab — despite a plea from her attorney because her hours at Burger King had been cut.

Beck signed an agreement to begin $25 monthly payments in April 2020. When she didn’t, the Elmore County Court Clerk filed an affidavit with a judge, who then issued a warrant of attachment for contempt, giving Beck three options: Pay off her entire outstanding debt; post $6,400 in bail; or go to jail. She was arrested in late October 2020 and released a few days later, still facing the same order. With the aid of attorneys from the Ratliff Law Offices in Mountain Home, Beck filed for a writ of prohibition from the Court in February 2021.

In that petition, the Court recalled, Beck argued “that the magistrate court exceeded its jurisdiction by issuing the warrant of attachment without making an adequate probable cause determination, conducting an ability-to-pay analysis, and considering whether reasonable cause existed to believe that she would have disregarded a written notice to appear.”

The Court agreed. First, it noted that the lower court failed to find any evidence that Beck’s nonpayment was willful. Second, the magistrate court had failed to conduct an ability-to-pay analysis. It had also failed to find any facts indicating Beck would ignore a notice to appear.

In addition, the Court agreed that the lower court’s bail scheme was unconstitutional. Given that bail bondsmen typically charge a ten percent fee, the magistrate court gave Beck no real choice between paying the amount she owed or a bail amount roughly ten times higher. That left her with no other option but incarceration. Quoting Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971), the Court said that “the Constitution prohibits the State from imposing a fine as a sentence and then automatically converting it into a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full.”

As a procedural matter, the Court added that the magistrate court also erred in basing its warrant on an affidavit from the County Clerk rather than on a motion filed by a prosecutor, as required under Idaho Criminal Rule 42.

Agreeing with Beck that she “carried her burden of demonstrating that no plain, speedy, and adequate remedy exists at law” other than a writ of prohibition, the Court granted her petition, also issuing an order “preventing the magistrate court from issuing warrants of attachment inconsistent with the procedural and constitutional safeguards discussed” in its opinion. See: Beck v. Elmore Cty. Magistrate Court (In re Writ of Prohibition), 168 Idaho 909 (2021).

Studies show that jailing people for non-payment of fines and fees has a negative impact on public safety. One 2013 study in Kentucky found that low-risk prisoners held in jail for even a few days were 40% more likely to commit another crime than those who were released, and those held for 31 days had a recidivism rate of 74%.

As Blake Strode, an attorney in the Missouri case, said, “Every night, thousands of people in this country are kept in jail because they simply cannot afford to buy their release.”

But efforts at bail reform often founder when a violent crime is committed by someone released pretrial. These sensational headlines usually ignore data that proves bail reform largely makes communities safer.

Those who cannot afford to buy their way out of jail face losing a job, which also means lost housing as well as lost transportation, which makes getting a new job even harder. Until states act to prevent their criminal justice systems from punishing poverty, it’s up to courts like those in Missouri and Idaho to keep more poor people from filling America’s prisons and jails. 

Additional source: Washington Post

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Related legal cases

Beck v. Elmore Cty. Magistrate Court (In re Writ of Prohibition),

State v. Richey