Court nixes Denver’s practice of jailing people who can’t pay $50 fee

“Local kid, working kid, who has a little bit of money, but not enough."

Photo credit: Intiaz Rahim, Creative Commons, Flickr

A Denver court on Friday put an end to a practice by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration of jailing criminal defendants for failing to pay a $50 bond fee.

The order comes in response to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado ACLU filed earlier this week against the city.

The suit was brought on behalf of Mickey Howard, 25, who had $64 in cash when arrested on domestic violence and public intoxication charges. That amount would have covered the $10 bond and $50 bond fee needed for Howard to go free. But Denver also levied a $30 “booking fee,” leaving Howard unable to pay the bond fee.

He spent five days in Denver jail until the Colorado Freedom Fund, a non-profit bail fund, paid the fee.

The charges against Howard were dismissed on Aug. 8 and the ACLU suit alleges that had it not been for the Colorado Freedom Fund, he would have spent the intervening time, almost two months, in jail.

“Jailing people solely because of their poverty, particularly when we are talking about pretrial defendants who are innocent in the eyes of the law, violates the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process,” said ACLU Legal Director Mark Silverstein.

Aside from the constitutional question, the $50 bond fee is less than the $70 or more a day it costs the city to incarcerate someone.

As a result of the lawsuit, Denver Sheriff Patrick Firman has issued a directive that, though the bonding fee will still be charged, the Sheriff’s Department will no longer hold anyone for failure to pay it.

The ACLU won a similar suit in against El Paso County in August on behalf of Jasmine Still, who was released on bond by a judge, but continued to be imprisoned for 26 days after failing to pay a $55 fee. Within the terms of that settlement, 183 people held by the county under similar circumstances now qualify for compensation as well. Days after the suit was filed by the ACLU, William Bain, chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, ordered an end to the practice.

Elisabeth Epps of the Colorado Freedom Fund said she knows several people who couldn’t pay their bonds because of Denver’s fees. “Local kid, working kid, who has a little bit of money, but not enough,” she said of Howard.

Mike Britton, vice president of Denver’s sheriff’s deputies union local, said Howard’s incarceration highlights the city’s habit of unnecessarily filling Denver’s already overcrowded and understaffed jails. Hancock and his administration long have ignored calls by deputies, criminal justice reformers and civil rights watchdogs to lower the inmate population.

“It’s about time,” Britton said of the legal victory against his department. “With everything in our department, there should be a lot more lawsuits filed on behalf of these inmates.”

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