Nebraska's criminal justice system levels fines and sets bail in amounts that low-income people are unable to pay, ultimately creating a debtor's prison, according to the ACLU of Nebraska.

The organization released "Unequal Justice" Tuesday, a 72-page report written after a survey of the system and its ramifications on people, jails and communities. The ACLU investigation, which focused on Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy and Hall counties, mirrored what surveyors learned during interviews with attorneys in smaller counties across the state, said Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU of Nebraska.

Key findings included these:

* Nebraskans jailed on nonviolent offenses spend an average of 48 days behind bars before going to trial. 

* It takes offenders an average of 4.6 paychecks to bail out of jail on municipal violations, 3.5 paychecks on traffic violations and four on drug violations.

* Fines and fees are not the same statewide. In Lancaster County, a charge of driving on a suspended license results in bail of $2,500, but no bail is needed for the same charge in Saunders, Seward, Platte or Hamilton counties.

* More than half of the people in county jails are there because they're waiting for trial and unable to afford bail.

At the same time, several counties are facing overcrowding problems, which the ACLU called a waste of taxpayer money. In Lancaster County, it costs $90 a day to house an inmate, according to Brad Johnson of the Lancaster County Correctional Center.

The ACLU said bail should be set only for people who pose a risk to public safety, like those charged with violent offenses including murder, sexual assault or robbery, or those who pose a flight risk.

The ACLU argues that wealthy defendants ordered to pay fines can do so immediately. Those who cannot pay go to jail, where their fines are reduced by $90 a day.

For example, a 27-year-old mother of two told ACLU surveyors she was pulled over for littering and charged with a misdemeanor. Her request for a public defender was denied since the charge doesn't carry jail time. But she was given two months to pay a $76 fine, and when she missed payments, she was arrested and booked into jail.

"The bottom line is, for far too many low-income Nebraskans, our justice system has become a maze of fines and fees that people can't escape," ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Danielle Conrad said Tuesday. "They're being jailed because they can't pay those fines and fees set by the court."

To get a snapshot of pretrial hearings, the ACLU looked at jail lists from the four counties examined on four random days last summer. The group also spent 50 hours in random county court hearings in three counties.

It found that many courts don’t comply with Nebraska law, which limits bail to those cases in which a defendant might leave a jurisdiction or might hurt someone.

Investigators found Nebraska courts treat defendants based on alleged crimes, not personal circumstances. The ACLU argues that one’s wealth isn’t an indicator of how likely he or she is to appear for a court date.

"These practices are absolutely prohibited by the United States Constitution," Conrad said.

The ACLU of Nebraska cited a study of Maryland’s pretrial release and bail system that shows that people released on their own recognizance appear in court more often than defendants released on cash bail.

In interviews with attorneys across the state, the Nebraska organization learned that some judges allow a couple of extensions on payment of fines, but people must go to court to ask for the extra time. People who are poor are less likely to have transportation and more likely to be unable to get time away from work or find child care so they can get to court hearings. 

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said he'd like to see a program that helps defendants by having them show the court they're looking for work, giving them community service or putting them on pretrial release, which he says is a program the county should use more.

"Pretrial release can identify people who need treatment and get them help or get them on medication, all things which will make it more likely that person appears in court," he said Tuesday. "It’s a lot safer to do those things than making them just sit in jail. If the person has issues, they’re still going to have those issues when they get out."

During the 50 hours spent in county court hearings, the ACLU observers saw several things they consider to be of concern:

* Judges did not ask defendants if they were able to pay assessed fines and fees, and in just one case, court costs were waived. 

* Just four people had attorneys present during the imposition of fines and court costs. 

* In each county, they saw “pay or stay” sentences -- defendants without attorneys present were told if they didn't pay money that day, they would be forced to sit out their fines in jail.

The ACLU's Miller said the organization is not suggesting people who are convicted of crimes not face consequences. It is saying the system can be reviewed and changed so being poor isn't a crime.

"We are literally jailing people who have no money and no money to pay their fines," Miller said in a telephone news conference Tuesday morning. "They’re sitting in jail on taxpayer expense, removed from their families, removed from their jobs ... for no reason other than they are poor."

Suggestions from ACLU of Nebraska for reforming the state's bail and fines system include these:

* Police should issue citations in lieu of arrest whenever possible. 

* Judges should ensure attorneys are appointed before bail is set.

* Court clerks should adopt reminder systems such as postcards, phone calls or text messages to reduce the number of failures to appear. 

* The Nebraska Supreme Court should create guidelines for determining inability to pay and policies for assessing fines, fees and costs.

* All judges and other court personnel should be trained on federal and state laws that prohibit incarceration of defendants who are too poor to pay fines, fees and costs, and train judges that they have the authority to waive all nonmandatory fees for defendants who are indigent.

"Nebraska’s state motto is 'Equality before the law,'" the report says. "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."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7395 or nmanna@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNicholeManna.

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