DENVER – The City of Colorado Springs has agreed, as part of a $103,000 settlement with the ACLU of Colorado, to stop converting impoverished defendants’ fines into jail time, to stop sentencing defendants to jail for non-jailable offenses, and to compensate dozens of individuals whose court fines were illegally converted to jail time when they could not afford to pay.
“Until last fall, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court was regularly sentencing poor and homeless defendants to jail because they were too poor to pay fines imposed for minor ordinance violations,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU of Colorado Legal Director. “We asked the City to stop this unconstitutional practice, to repeal the ordinance that arguably authorized it, and to set up a fund to compensate defendants who had been sentenced to jail for non-jailable offenses. The City Attorney’s Office, to its credit, promptly agreed and worked collaboratively with the ACLU of Colorado to reach the finalized settlement agreement that we are proudly announcing today.”
A 2015 ACLU of Colorado investigation revealed hundreds of cases where the Colorado Springs Municipal Court imposed a fine for violation of a city ordinance and then, when the defendant could not pay, converted the fine into a jail sentence, which court documents labeled as a “pay or serve” sentence. A “pay or serve” sentence ordered a defendant to either pay the amount due or serve time in jail at a rate of $50 a day. In three-fourths of the “pay or serve” sentences, defendants were jailed for non-jailable offenses, meaning that they were punishable by a fine only. In some cases, the Court imposed multiple consecutive jail sentences on defendants who had more than one citation for a non-jailable offense.
Shawn Hardman, an ACLU client, was sentenced on four occasions to a total of more than 90 days in jail for non-jailable panhandling tickets. Like many other victims of the City’s debtor’s prison practices, Hardman was convicted for merely displaying a sign inviting charity — conduct that the City acknowledges did not violate the panhandling ordinance.
“In the year preceding the ACLU’s investigation, this homeless man, who had not broken the law for which he was repeatedly cited, was sentenced to serve nearly three months in jail for a non-jailable offense, solely because he was poor,” said ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Rebecca T. Wallace.
“I was trapped in a cell that it seemed like I could never get out of. I was told over and over that I either had to pay or go back to jail. I was homeless and jobless, so the cycle kept repeating,” said Hardman. “I am thankful for this settlement, because it will help me keep a roof over my head, something I have wanted for a long time. Even more, I am proud that the settlement will protect other people living on the streets in Colorado Springs from going through what I went through – being jailed just because I was poor.”
Hardman and three other ACLU clients will receive payment within 14 days. An additional 62 persons are eligible for compensation based on a rate of $125 per day for each day of incarceration solely for a non-jailable offense. The City and the ACLU will work together to notify those individuals of their eligibility, and they will be able to claim compensation until December 30, 2016 or up to two years from the date of their incarceration, whichever is later.
Colorado Springs will also provide training on constitutional protections for indigent defendants, which will include presentations by ACLU attorneys, to all its municipal prosecutors and judges, as well as defense attorneys contracted to represent indigent defendants. The City has already complied with its promise to repeal the ordinance that authorized judges to convert fines to jail time.
“We hope today’s settlement sends a loud and clear message to municipal courts throughout the state to stop using jail or the threat of jail to collect debts from persons who are too poor to pay,” Silverstein said.
In recent years, the ACLU of Colorado has called for greater scrutiny of municipal court practices, especially as they affect indigent defendants. Two bills concerning the rights of impoverished defendants in municipal courts were passed by bipartisan majorities in the Colorado legislature this year and are now awaiting Governor Hickenlooper’s signature. HB 1309 would ensure a public defender at first appearance for indigent defendants held in jail. HB 1311 further updates a law passed in 2014 to stop courts from jailing poor defendants for failing to pay court-ordered fines. The ACLU of Colorado is calling on the Governor to sign both bills without delay.
Read the details of the settlement here: ACLU Settlement Agreement and Release