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Colorado: $190,000 Settlement for Prisoners Ordered Released but Kept in Jail for Inability to Pay $55 Fee

by Matt Clarke 

El Paso County, Colorado has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by a woman who remained in jail for 27 days because she was unable to pay a $55 fee, even after a judge ordered her release on a personal recognizance bond.

According to court documents, Jasmine Still was arrested for possession of three-tenths of a gram of methamphetamine on January 9, 2017. Two days later, El Paso County Pretrial Services (ECPS) evaluated her case and recommended her for a supervised personal recognizance bond. The court accepted the evaluation and ordered her release. 

Under ECPS policy, prior to release on a supervised personal recognizance bond, the defendant must pay a $55 pre-trial services fee. Still was unable to pay the fee, so she remained in jail. She received a plea bargain offer for a misdemeanor, but was unable to accept it because it stipulated that she have a residence and be employed – which she could not do while incarcerated. 

About two weeks into her jail stay, Still was notified that her children, who had been in the care of her mother since she was locked up, were being considered for foster care due to her incarceration. Unable to properly defend against the foster care proceedings, Still sought a waiver of the pre-trial services fee so she could be released. 

The judge told her that “per policy,” he was without authorization to waive the fee. Her public defender emailed the judicial leadership, which confirmed that, per ECPS policy, the Personal Recognizance Bond Commissioner must first recommend a waiver before a judge is allowed to waive the fee.

Still decided to accept a felony plea bargain so she could be released and care for her children. On February 6, 2017, she pleaded guilty and was promptly released. 

Aided by ACLU of Colorado attorneys Rebecca Wallace and Mark Silverstein, Still filed a federal civil rights complaint against El Paso County alleging the ECPS policy violated her Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. The August 2018 settlement in the case included a $60,000 payment to Still and an agreement to pay $125 per day to another 183 pretrial detainees who were jailed for a total of 1,043 days due to the ECPS policy, provided they applied for compensation. The policy requiring payment of the fee was discontinued.

“Many defendants caught up in the criminal justice system have only minor records and pose little or no threat to public safety, which is why the court orders their release on a PR bond,” Silverstein noted. “The cruel and thoughtless policy at the heart of this lawsuit targeted the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, the most impoverished individuals in this group – those who can’t even access a mere $55 to secure their release. County officials are to be commended not only for ending the policy, but also for agreeing to compensate nearly 200 additional individuals that the ACLU did not represent, who spent time in jail solely because they could not pay a $55 fee.” 

As noted in court pleadings, the ECPS policy made no economic sense. It cost the county an average of $88.72 per day to keep a person in jail; thus, just one day of jail time cost the county more than waiving the $55 fee. Yet Personal Recognizance Bond Commissioners would refuse to waive the fee until an indigent defendant had remained in jail for a long time. Perhaps that was because the ECPS program and the commissioners’ salaries were funded by the fees. See: Still v. El Paso County, U.S.D.C. (D. Colo.), Case No. 1:17-cv-02656-WYD-KLM. 

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Additional sources: kktv.com, aclu.org

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Still v. El Paso County


 

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