WASHINGTON -- "What if I don't have the money?" the man asked the judge. He was in court because he hadn't completed the 32 hours of community service he'd agreed to serve as part of a plea deal for a minor offense, and he couldn't afford to pay his $320 fine.
The defendant was hoping for a deferred sentence -- for a bit more time to get the funds together or to complete his community service. No such luck.
"You go to jail," the judge replied.
According to the transcript, the man seemed shocked. "Over a violation?" he asked. Yes, the judge said. Seven days. "Well, I guess I'll go to jail then," the defendant said.
That exchange, between a defendant and New Hampshire judge Thomas Bamberger, comes to light as the result of a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, which revealed that in 2013, courts sent defendants to jail in lieu of a fine in at least 289 cases.
When poor defendants appeared in court over an unpaid fine, the ACLU found that judges did not assign them a lawyer, seek to determine whether they could afford their fine or inform them of their rights. "Judges simply put them in jail," the report states.
One transcript indicates that a hearing over a criminal trespass case started at 11:12 a.m. and was over by 11:13 a.m. In less than 90 seconds, according to the report, the judge accepted the defendant's plea to what amounted to a traffic ticket, fined him $100 plus an additional court fee, and sent him to jail to pay off the fine.
While people serve off their fines at a rate of $50 per day, it actually costs more than twice that much -- around $110 per day -- to lock them up behind bars, the report notes.
“Being poor is not a crime in this country,” said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire. “Incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fines is both unconstitutional and cruel. It takes a tremendous toll on precisely those families already struggling the most.”
The ACLU obtained audio from court proceedings in which poor defendants were sent to jail.
Listen to two of the cases below, including that of a 22-year-old single mother of two. A fire displaced her family and she couldn't complete her community service, so a judge told her she'd have to spend nine days in jail. However, the woman only ended up serving one day after the ACLU intervened and filed an emergency petition to the Supreme Court.
Watch the video below, and read the full report here.