DENVER – The Colorado legislature passed two pieces of legislation in recent days to protect the rights of poor and vulnerable defendants in Colorado’s municipal courts. Both bills await Governor Hickenlooper’s signature.
Nearly three-fourths of Colorado’s lawmakers supported HB16 – 1309 (fact sheet), a bill to safeguard the right to counsel in municipal court. In state and county courts, an attorney is available at first appearance to advocate for the release of jailed defendants and to advise those defendants on pleas when jail is a possible sentence. In almost all Colorado municipal courts, however, defendants must face the judge alone, must make arguments for release alone, and must decide how to plead alone. HB16 – 1309 requires counsel be provided at first appearance to defendants who cannot afford to bond out of jail on a minor municipal offense and who face a possible jail sentence.
Earlier today, the Colorado Senate voted 23 to 12 in support of HB16 -1311 (fact sheet), a bill to finally end the practice of jailing people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees in Colorado. In 2014, the legislature passed HB-1061 with near-unanimous bipartisan support, acting to end debtors’ prisons in Colorado. District and county courts followed that law, but municipal courts found a loophole to keep jailing people who are too poor to pay. HB16 – 1311 closes the loophole and finally ends debtors’ prison practices in Colorado municipal courts.
ACLU of Colorado Public Policy Director Denise Maes issued the following statement:
“The American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado commends the Colorado legislature for coming together to protect the rights and liberties of Colorado’s most vulnerable defendants in municipal court.
“Being poor is not a crime. The ACLU of Colorado has found overwhelming evidence that poor people are often punished, and even jailed, by Colorado’s municipal courts just for being poor.
“Impoverished municipal defendants routinely plead guilty without the advice of counsel just to get out of jail, even when they are innocent. These same defendants often experience collateral consequences of their plea – including obstacles to employment, housing, and government benefits – that are never explained at court, due to the lack of counsel.
“Municipal courts continue to use jail and the threat of jail to collect debts from the poor, creating a two-tiered system of justice in which people who cannot afford to pay are imprisoned, while those with means simply pay their debt and move on with their lives.
“The steps taken by the legislature this session, if approved by the Governor, will reduce the number of innocent, unrepresented defendants who are wrongly jailed for crimes they did not commit and will finally put municipal courts in line with the well-established Constitutional principle that jail should never be used to collect payment from those who cannot pay.
“We strongly urge Governor Hickenlooper to sign both bills without delay, and we look forward to working with Colorado’s emerging coalition of reform-minded legislators on future improvements to make our courts and criminal justice system more fair, efficient, and consistent with Constitutional principles.”