In 2013, the ACLU of Colorado launched a campaign to stop Colorado's municipal courts from sending people to jail when they were unable to pay court-imposed fines for violations of minor municipal ordinances.  The municipal court practice has been criticized as a return to debtors’ prisons.

The ACLU wrote to thee Front Range cities demanding a prompt halt to the illegal practice of jailing poor people for failing to pay court-ordered fines.

The letters were based on an in-depth investigation into the municipal courts of Westminster, Wheat Ridge, and Northglenn,   The ACLU found that each city routinely issues “pay or serve” warrants without any consideration for or inquiry into a debtor’s ability to pay.

“Pay- or-serve” warrants authorize a debtor’s arrest. Once in custody, the debtor must either pay the full amount of the fine or “pay down” the fine by serving time in jail at a daily rate set by the court. Wheat Ridge and Northglenn set the rate at $50 per day, while Westminster converts all unpaid fines into ten-day sentences. None of the three cities has a process to determine whether the debtor has the ability to pay, as federal and state law require.

The practices highlighted in the ACLU’s letters are emblematic of a wider problem. Municipal courts in the majority of Colorado’s largest cities order the arrest of persons who miss payments on court-ordered fines, with most of them specifying jail time in proportion to the size of the unpaid debt.

The Jefferson County jail imprisoned at least 154 people on pay-or-serve warrants during a five-month period from February to June of this year. During that time period, 973 days were served at a cost to taxpayers of more than $70 per day, for a total cost of more than $70,000. These 973 fine days cancelled out $40,000 of fines owed by the arrestees, making the total loss to the taxpayer $110,000.

In early 2014, in response to the ACLU’s letters and the resulting publicity, the municipal judges in Jefferson County cities agreed to stop issuing “pay or serve” warrants.   

By raising publicly the issue of “pay or serve” warrants and the new debtors’ prisons, the ACLU of Colorado attracted the attention of the Colorado legislature.   House Bill 14-1061 was adopted nearly unanimously and became effective in May, 2014.   The statute forbids Colorado courts to issue warrants for failure to pay money.

Update: In 2016, ACLU of Colorado policy advocates worked with legislators to enact HB 16-1311, which addressed a loophole some municipal courts were pursuing to continue jailing persons who were too poor to pay court-imposed fines

Additional ACLU cases raising debtors' prison issues:

ACLU news releases:



Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director; Rebecca Wallace, ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney

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