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  • James Fisher spoke at the ACLU of Colorado Bill of Rights Dinner about how he and the ACLU are working together to stop the criminalization of poverty for the thousands of Coloradans who are trapped in debtors’ prisons.

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ACLU sues on behalf of Colorado woman who was jailed 27 days because she could not pay a $55 fee

DENVER – The ACLU of Colorado filed a lawsuit in federal court this morning against El Paso County on behalf of Jasmine Still, a Colorado Springs resident who was held in jail for 27 days after a court granted her release, without payment of money, through a personal recognizance bond (PR bond). Despite the court’s order, El Paso County continued to hold Ms. Still, because she was unable to pay a $55 fee for El Paso County Pretrial Services.

According to the lawsuit, El Paso County has a policy of continuing to imprison people who have been granted a PR bond if they cannot pay the county-imposed fee. This policy has caused the illegal imprisonment of hundreds of pre-trial detainees, who are innocent in the eyes of the law and have only been charged with, not convicted of, a crime.

“The court determined that Ms. Still was not a flight risk or a danger to the community and that she deserved to be free while her case was pending, yet El Paso County held her in jail for nearly a month solely because she could not afford to pay a $55 fee,” said ACLU of Colorado Legal Director Mark Silverstein. “Jailing someone because of their poverty is not only cruel, it is unconstitutional.”

“We estimate that, in a one year period, El Paso County held over 300 defendants in jail for a total of more than 3000 days only because they couldn’t come up with the money to pay a $55 fee,” said ACLU of Colorado staff attorney Rebecca Wallace.  “Putting aside the illegality of the County’s practice, it makes no economic sense.  Waiving those fees would have cost the County about $16,000, but jailing those defendants who could not pay cost taxpayers more than $266,000.”

Still had never before been arrested, booked into a jail, or charged with a crime. While incarcerated for 27 days, she was separated from her newborn child, and child custody proceedings were initiated against her.  In order to fight for her children, she decided she had no choice but to plead guilty to secure her release, rather than fight her case.

“Every day I was in jail, I thought there had to have been some kind of mistake.  I didn’t think you could jail someone just because they were poor,” said Still. “I am fighting back not just for me, but for all of the other people who El Paso County has kept in jail because they couldn’t scrape together $55.”

“Ms. Still’s story underscores the unjust and needless costs of pretrial incarceration,” said Wallace.  “Pre-trial jail stays can and do cause legally innocent people to lose out on pay, lose their job, lose custody of their children, lose their housing and lose their vehicle.  With all of these pressures building on pretrial defendants, it is no wonder that many defendants plead guilty just to get out of jail.”

Earlier this year, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported that the El Paso County Jail was “bursting at the seams” after the population surged to more than 1,750 inmates. 

“If El Paso County wants to decrease the number of inmates in its jails and also save money, it should start by immediately releasing those whom the court has ordered released on personal recognizance,” said Silverstein.

In addition to asking for compensation for Ms. Still and additional plaintiffs who may later be added to the suit, the ACLU seeks to end the unconstitutional policy of jailing defendants who are too poor to pay a $55 fee.

Resources:

Read the ACLU complaint: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/1-Complaint.pdf

Gazette: El Paso County jail staff scrambles as inmate population keeps growing



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