ACLU: Too poor to pay a fine in Colorado Springs? Go to jail

COLORADO SPRINGS — Too poor to afford a fine? Spend a few days in jail instead to pay it off. 

That’s essentially what’s happening in Colorado Springs, according to the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, Mark Silverstein. In a news conference today, he said homeless and poor defendants who find themselves in the machine of this city’s municipal court system are having fines they can’t pay converted to jail sentences— an illegal practice.  

The allegations, outlined in a seven-page letter to the Colorado Springs city attorney and to the presiding judge of the city’s municipal court, are serious.

“What I’m talking about is sentencing practices that not only violate the constitutional law but really harken back to the days of debtors prisons that were abolished long ago in this country,” Silverstein said from behind a podium in a conference room at a downtown Colorado Springs library.

How it works in Colorado Springs goes like this, Silverstein said: When the court fines someone for violating a minor, non-jail-able city ordinance, the court converts the fine into a jail sentence when the defendant doesn’t pay. Doing so, he said, violates more than 40 years of precedents by the United States Supreme Court, and also Colorado law. Silverstein said the ACLU spent a month or so investigating and found hundreds of cases in the past year of defendants having their fines converted to jail sentences, the majority of them for non-jail-able offenses.

The presiding judge of the Colorado Springs municipal court, HayDen Kane, says he takes issue with the allegations, but he declined to respond to them directly in an interview at his courthouse.

“We take the allegations seriously,” Kane said, indicating a detailed response would be forthcoming, and adding his courthouse practices follow the law.

The ACLU of Colorado called on the city to stop converting fines into jail time, and to also set up a fund to compensate anyone whose constitutional rights have been violated.

Silverstein said he first learned how some poor defendants were winding up in jail here when the ACLU began looking into a recently proposed ordinance in Colorado Springs aimed at stopping people from sitting or lying in areas downtown, a proposal the ACLU opposes.

The ACLU asked the Colorado Springs city attorney for a written response to the group’s letter within the next two weeks.

Local Black Lives Matter activist Patricia Cameron says this isn’t really news for some people in Colorado Springs.

“Especially the people who have been through the court system or are too poor to pay these fines,” she said. “This is old school … we’ve known about this for years.” 

On the third floor of the municipal courthouse a few blocks from the news conference, judge Kane declined to speak in detail about how his court practices work in regard to the allegations.

In the past, Kane has called his court a “customer-based model” that’s the most efficient in Colorado.

Asked if he felt that was still the case, he said, “I do.”


Photo credit: Chris Potter, Creative Commons, Flickr.