By Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Low-income offenders often can’t pay fines and bail amounts assessed in Nebraska courts, effectively creating a debtor’s prison, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.

The civil rights organization released a 72-page report Tuesday after studying the state’s criminal justice system and its impact on people, jails and communities. The study focused on Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy and Hall counties, but results reflected what surveyors also learned when interviewing attorneys in smaller counties, according to Nebraska ACLU legal director Amy Miller.

The report found that more than half of the people in county jails were in custody because they were waiting for trial and are unable to afford bail. The ACLU said that’s a waste of taxpayer money. In Lancaster County, Correction Center Administrator Brad Johnson said it costs $90 per day to house an inmate.

The investigation also found that judges almost never asked people if they could afford to pay fines and court fees, said state ACLU Executive Director Danielle Conrad said.

The ACLU recommended that police issue citations in lieu of arrest whenever possible, and that judges ensure attorneys are appointed before bail is set. The organization said bail should only be set for people who threaten public safety, such as those charged with violent offenses like murder or sexual assault.

County jail officials said they’re trying to avoid keeping people jailed who can’t afford fees and are associated with nonviolent crimes. Nebraska allows people convicted of crimes to set up a payment schedule if they can’t afford to immediately pay.

Community corrections managers like Kim Etherton of Lancaster County and Michael Myers of Douglas County agreed that keeping a large amount of people in jail and away from their families was not effective. State Court Administrator Corey Steel said while he has not yet fully read the report, the issue of jailing people for nonpayment of fines is being studied by at least three national court organizations.

The ACLU report notes that Nebraska’s state motto is, “Equality before the law.”

“We need to work toward a system where all citizens are treated equally when they are charged with a crime or punished with a fine, regardless of their financial circumstances,” the report states.

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