ACLU: Hundreds of El Paso County inmates kept in jail over $55 fee

Author: Lance Benzel, The Gazette - November 7, 2017 - Updated: November 7, 2017

Inmates play cards in the veterans ward at the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013. The county created the special ward to help meet the needs of the veteran inmates and give them more access to outside programs for them. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Hundreds of El Paso County inmates have endured “weeks and even months of senseless and illegal pretrial incarceration” because they cannot afford to pay a $55 fee imposed by the county, the ACLU said Tuesday in a federal lawsuit that seeks to end the practice.

The complaint, which names El Paso County as the sole defendant, was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver on behalf of Jasmine Still, a Colorado Springs woman who was held for 27 days after a court granted her pretrial release.

Although a judge ordered that she be let out of jail on a supervised personal recognizance bond – involving her signed pledge to attend court appearances on a pending drug charge – Still couldn’t afford to pay El Paso County Pretrial Services and therefore was deemed ineligible for release, the suit says.

During a one-year period examined by the ACLU, the same problem kept up to 300 inmates in custody – some for more than 100 days.

“We want to put a stop to this practice of holding people in jail for lack of $55,” said Mark Silverstein, the legal director for ACLU of Colorado, saying the policy “makes no sense legally, morally and ethically.”

He suggested that the county hold off on collecting the fee until the conclusion of a criminal case, taking it out of the equation for pretrial release, which he called a constitutional right for those who are not deemed a public safety risk.

Representatives of El Paso County and its pretrial services division couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Instead of posting a cash bond, a defendant who is granted a personal recognizance bond signs an agreement to appear in court and to comply with any release conditions. Supervised personal recognizance bonds involve additional oversight by Pretrial Services workers, sometimes including drug and alcohol monitoring.

Judges and the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office are aware the fee has extended inmates’ stay in jail, but say they have no authority to waive it under county policy, perpetuating a system that punishes the poor, the ACLU said.

Procedures for contesting the fee or pursuing a waiver are “murky, at best” and the decision lies solely with two county employees whose salaries are partly funded through the fees, the group alleges.

The group is also seeking a monetary award for Still on grounds the fee violated her constitutional guarantees to due process.

Silverstein said he is aware of no other county in Colorado that assesses the fee or makes personal recognizance bonds dependent on cash payments of any kind.

Still’s time in jail kept her apart from her newborn, and child custody proceedings were initiated against her, the ACLU said in a news release. She ultimately decided to plead guilty to a felony drug charge in order to fight for custody of her children, costing her the opportunity to accept a misdemeanor plea offer that depended on her being employed, the ACLU said.

The custody action is pending.

Lance Benzel, The Gazette