El Paso County’s Board of Commissioners approved a settlement with the ACLU of Colorado at its regular meeting Tuesday morning. The suit was filed on behalf of a woman held in jail for nearly a month because she couldn’t pay a $55 administrative fee.
Jasmine Still was arrested for drug possession in 2017 and booked at the El Paso County Jail. A judge ordered that she be released while awaiting trial on a personal recognizance -- or “PR” -- bond. However, because she couldn’t pay the administrative fee associated with the bond, she remained in jail for another 26 days, until she agreed to a guilty plea, according to the ACLU.
“When someone is in jail solely because they cannot pay money, that violates due process, equal protection, and our long tradition of opposing debtors’ prisons,” said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the ACLU of Colorado.
He said the practice affected many others who, like Still, could not afford the $55 fee and were held in jail despite a judge’s order that they be released.
“I think middle class folks have a hard time imagining how poor and how alone you have to be if you can’t even get $55 together to get out of jail,” said Silverstein. He described those affected as some of the most “vulnerable,” “marginalized,” and “impoverished” in the criminal justice system.
Under the proposed settlement with the ACLU, the county will pay $60,000 for Jasmine Still’s damages, costs and attorney’s fees. Another 183 people who were held due to an inability to pay the fee will also be eligible for compensation under the settlement at a rate of $125 per day spent in jail. The ACLU estimates the cost of those additional payments could total $130,000.
County spokesman Dave Rose said the fee policy was implemented in 2012, when the County reinstated the PR bond program after suspending it during the Great Recession. The program, which allows low risk defendants to be released pending trial without paying a cash bond, is meant to reduce overcrowding in the county jail and allow defendants to maintain their employment and keep up with other responsibilities while awaiting trial, according to a county press release. The $55 fee goes toward recouping some of the costs associated with the PR bond program.
Rose said the county was aware of problems with the practice of requiring people to pay the fee prior to their release, and said it had already been considering changes to the policy when the ACLU’s lawsuit was filed. The County dropped the requirement shortly thereafter, in November of 2017.
Defendants granted PR bonds still must pay the fee, but they are no longer required to do so before being released.
“The change was underway and was about to be adopted by the time that we were notified of the challenge by the ACLU,” said Rose.
Despite the settlement, Rose said the county doesn’t view its former policy in terms of “wrongdoing or guilt.” Instead, he said, “the county views it as a procedure that needed to be changed and has been changed.”
For his part, the ACLU’s Mark Silverstein said county officials “do deserve credit” for abolishing the practice, and for agreeing to compensate those, besides Jasmine Still, who were affected by the policy.
Jasmine Still agrees. “El Paso County did something I didn’t expect -- they stepped up to make this right,” she said in press release from the ACLU. “I hope this case will make other places think twice before they lock people up just because they can’t pay.”