Bill to give poor defendants an attorney before jail

Mar 14, 2017

BY: CCNH-LFDA Highlights

On Wednesday, March 15 a House committee will hear public testimony on a bill that would prohibit jail time for nonpayment of a fine unless the court appoints a lawyer for the defendant.

The bill, SB 200, was prompted by a 2015 study from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) that found many defendants were sent to jail, without a lawyer, because they were too poor to pay a fine. 

The state Supreme Court ruled that the state and federal constitutions only guarantee the right to an attorney in criminal cases, not civil cases over the nonpayment of fines. 

Supporters of SB 200 argue that New Hampshire has a system of debtors prisons, in which the poor are unjustly incarcerated for trivial offenses simply because they cannot pay.

Some supporters point to the death of Jeffrey Pendleton as an example of the serious consequences of incarceration for non-payment of a fine.  Pendleton was a homeless man from Nashua who overdosed on fentanyl while serving time at the Valley Street jail in Manchester.  Pendleton was in jail for marijuana possession; he could not afford the $100 bail set by a judge.  

The cost of incarcerating an individual also usually exceeds the amount of any unpaid fine.

On the other hand, the ACLU-NH study only examined 39 cases from 2013 in which a defendant was sent to jail for not paying fines.  According to Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin W. Kelly, New Hampshire circuit court judges handled roughly 83,000 cases involving fines that year. 

Do you support a right to a lawyer for defendants who are unable to pay a fine?  Share your opinion in the comments.

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