ACLU stops at the intersection of civil liberties and economic injustice

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Posted Wed, Apr 2, 2014

DENVER –– The Denver chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union held its annual membership meeting on Thursday Feb. 20. About 100 people from adults in their early 20’s to Randall, a 7-year-member in his late 70’s, braved the cool Colorado night to gather in the Craig Community Room at the University of Denver to show support for the organization.

A focus of the meeting was to share some of the struggles of those living below poverty level in Colorado, and what the organization is been doing to help their plight. The ACLU has started a relatively new fight for those whose civil liberties are threatened by economic inequality.

Members gather for the annual meeting. Photo by Angela Jackson

Members gather for the ACLU Annual Membership Meeting. [Photo by Angela Jackson.]

Mark Silverstein, ACLU-Colorado legal director, Amanda Gonzales, the executive director of the Colorado Latino Forum and Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Organization, and Claire Levy, the executive director of Colorado Center on Law and Policy, made up the panel of experts for the discussion.

“In some ways the topic could not be more timely but unfortunately in many respects, the topic seems to be timeless,” said ACLU-CO Public Policy Director Denise Maes.

Those who are poor face additional burdens in the instances they make contact with the criminal justice system.  ACLU-Colorado performed an investigation on three area municipalities that issue “pay or serve” warrants on a regular basis, without regard for the person’s ability to pay.

“For those who live paycheck to paycheck, it may be nearly impossible for these individuals to pay those fines,” Maes said.

This practice has brought about the return of ‘debtor’s prison,’ a thing once thought long gone.  Pay your fine, by doing time is something the ACLU discovered over the last two years that some cities in the Denver Metro area were doing for small violations such as failing to mow one’s lawn or failing to have their dog on a leash.

Denver County Jail had a standard payment scale of $90 off your fine for every day you spent in jail. Denver stopped issuing failure to pay warrants in 2012.

Pat Blumenthal of ACLU-Colorado directs a member to literature. Photo by Angela Jackson

Pat Blumenthal of ACLU-Colorado directs a member to literature. [Photo by Angela Jackson]

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, according to ACLU.

Levy highlighted the efforts DCCLP is doing to help families attain economic self-sufficiency and break the cycle of poverty. Creating tax credits that are refundable and unlinked from tax liability “is the best way to get people out of poverty,” Levy said.

Gonzales shared a snapshot of the Latino community in Denver, which was not a particularly pretty picture to her. There is a disparity in health and housing that is connected to education for Latinos, Gonzales said.

  Other topics presented include:

* Youth in Action Award given to Mia Lopez

* Civil Rights in Action Award given to Public Defender Maralina Schoenfelder

* Induction of the Arlette Baer Volunteer Award

* For more information about what the ACLU is doing please visit aclu-co.org.

Angela Jackson

About Angela Jackson

Angela Jackson is a Denver-Area Freelance Writer

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