COLORADO SPRINGS — People too poor to pay fines will no longer work off their debts by sitting in Colorado Springs jail cells, and the city will pay thousands to those who were wrongly locked up.
That’s thanks to the ACLU of Colorado, who in October accused Colorado’s second-largest city of running modern-day debtors prisons, a practice declared unconstitutional by the Colorado and United States Supreme Courts.
In Colorado Springs, it worked like this: When the court fined someone for violating a minor, non-jailable city ordinance, the court converted the fine into a jail sentence when the defendant didn’t pay.
The state’s ACLU chapter had spent a month or so investigating last year and found hundreds of cases where defendants had their fines converted to jail sentences; the majority of them were for non-jailable offenses.
The accusation last fall stung city officials and the top judge at the municipal courthouse. City officials said they took the allegations seriously and would look into it.
Two months later, Colorado Springs officials drove to Denver to meet with the ACLU in person to discuss the issue. Following the meeting, neither side explained in detail what they’d discussed, but they put out similar-sounding statements about working together toward a resolution.
In March, the Colorado Springs City Council officially put a stop to the practice of converting fines to jail time.
Today, the ACLU held a news conference in the Springs where the civil liberties group announced it had settled with city officials over the matter. The city agreed to stop its practice and will compensate those already affected by it to the tune of $100,000, divided among those who had been wrongly jailed.
One victim, Shawn Hardman, who goes by the nickname Q-tip, will receive roughly $11,000 for being wrongly jailed for panhandling.
“We asked the City to stop this unconstitutional practice, to repeal the ordinance that arguably authorized it, and to set up a fund to compensate defendants who had been sentenced to jail for non-jailable offenses,” Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director, said in a statement. “The City Attorney’s Office, to its credit, promptly agreed and worked collaboratively with the ACLU of Colorado to reach the finalized settlement agreement that we are proudly announcing today.”
Asked if Colorado Springs was running debtors prisons, Mayor John Suthers, the state’s former Republican attorney general, told NPR, “You could say that in the sense that people were getting jail time for offenses that should only carry a fine.”
Later, during a Thursday afternoon news conference in downtown Colorado Springs, the mayor said he was “absolutely” sorry about those who landed in a jail cell when they shouldn’t have.
“I’m a law-and-order guy, I always have been and always will be,” said Suthers, who is also a former U.S. attorney. “So to the extent that the system doesn’t follow the law and someone suffers a consequence that’s a bad thing and I feel bad about that.”
Asked by The Colorado Independent if there had been any consequences for city employees, he said, “No, I don’t think so other than … the mayor appoints the judges and I did not re-appoint a couple of judges.” Asked if jail-in-lieu-of-fines rulings by those un-retained judges factored into his decisions, he said, “I think my desire to further professionalize the municipal court over time is an important factor moving forward.”
Those who were wrongly jailed in Colorado Springs are eligible for $125 for each day they spent in the slammer. They could also sue the city. The city and the ACLU are still looking for about 65 others who are owed money, but since they’re homeless they’ve been hard to find.
As NPR reported: “The next time one of these men or women gets picked up by police in Colorado Springs, they might find out they’ve got some money coming to them.”