- Associated Press - Sunday, May 28, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Lincoln resident Glenn Sharp spent most of his 20s and 30s sitting in county jail, and he figures he wouldn’t have been there if he just had the money to pay his fines and back child support.

Homeless, divorced, addicted and struggling to pay child support, Sharp was regularly jailed to make up his overdue payments. When he racked up fines for shoplifting, assaults and drinking in public - fines he takes responsibility for but says were connected to being homeless - he ended up sitting each one out in jail.

Sharp, now 51, has stayed out of jail for more than five years and hopes a new Nebraska law requiring judges to consider a person’s financial status before assigning fines or setting bail will help others like him. He can see the bridge he lived under for three years from the kitchen window of his apartment, and he looks at it daily as a reminder of where he has been.

“I know what it’s like sitting in the jailhouse, and that place sucks bad,” he said.

The law, signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, will require that any person who fails to pay a fine in time appear before a judge instead of automatically sitting out the fine in jail. Judges could choose to dismiss the fine or assign up to 20 hours of community service instead, and the rate for sitting out a fine would increase from $90 to $150 a day.

Advocates hope the law, parts of which take effect later this year and parts in 2019, will reduce the number of people sitting out fines. Such inmates served a combined 56,000 days in the Lancaster County jail last year and cost the county $5.6 million, public defender Joe Nigro said.

“I think Lancaster County could wind up saving millions of dollars a year by getting these people out of jail who are just there sitting out fines,” Nigro said. “When you’re talking about people sitting out fines, you’re not talking about community safety. These are people who just got a fine.”

Many of the fines are for nuisance violations such as trespassing, drinking in public, littering and public urination, said Fran Kaye, a University of Nebraska professor who volunteers with low-income Lincoln residents. These disproportionately affect homeless people, who aren’t able to drink or use the bathroom in their own houses and end up sitting out fines they can’t afford to pay.

“It just seemed to me the stupidest thing in the world to expect people with no money to pay a ticket and then spend the county’s money putting them in jail to work off the fine,” Kaye said.

American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska executive director Danielle Conrad said the law’s passage with little opposition shows Nebraska policymakers are committed to “meaningful and important reforms” of the state’s criminal justice system.

The ACLU spent much of 2016 looking into bail and fine practices in Nebraska courts following reports from attorneys and nationwide attention to “modern-day debtors’ prisons” spurred by investigations into the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, where an officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2014. More than 20 percent of Ferguson’s budget came from court fines and fees for low-level offenses, and the city issued more arrest warrants for unpaid fines than it had residents.

At least a dozen other states have passed similar reform measures.

“There was just really a lack of attention to these issues on the front line of our judicial system, and for far, far too many low-income Nebraskans, our justice system has become a real maze of fines and fees from which they simply cannot escape,” Conrad said.

The bail portion of the law, which requires judges to consider a person’s ability to pay as one of several factors in setting bond, is a start but may not go far enough toward reducing the thousands of people a year who sit in jail for weeks or months waiting for trial, Nigro said.

In most cases, Nebraska defendants only have to pay 10 percent of their bond amount to be released, so if bond is set at $1,000, paying $100 will get the defendant out on bail. Once defendants make their court dates, they’ll get 90 percent of the amount paid back - in this case, $90. The rest of the money goes to court costs.

For serious crimes likely to result in jail time, judges will appoint a public defender, but courts don’t have to provide an attorney in cases that would end with a fine. One man Nigro spoke with came from out of state and was arrested on suspicion of trespassing. He pleaded not guilty, the judge set a bond of $1,000 because the man had no Nebraska connections, and the man waited 36 days in jail until his next court date, when he changed his plea and received a $50 fine.

It costs about $100 a day to house an inmate, so Lancaster County would have spent about $3,600 to eventually get this man’s $50 fine and $49 court fee. Other people plead guilty to minor offenses immediately because they know they won’t be able to afford bail or miss even a day of work sitting in jail, Nigro said.

“We should not a have a system where people plead guilty because they’re poor,” Nigro said. “People should plead guilty because they committed a crime and this is the best way to resolve their case.”


Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JMShumway

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