ACLU: City jails people because they're poor


Silverstein: City punishes people for being poor. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Silverstein: City punishes people for being poor.

The ACLU of Colorado is demanding the city of Colorado Springs immediately stop jailing people in lieu of their ability to pay fines. Legal director Mark Silverstein said at a news conference in Colorado Springs today that hundreds of indigent people have been incarcerated in the El Paso County Criminal Justice Center because they were unable to pay fines — largely for offenses of panhandling and violating the parks curfew.

The ACLU's investigation covers the time period in municipal court from Jan. 1, 2014, through most of this year. Such practices, dubbed "pay or serve" referring to pay the fine or go to jail, violate federal law and a state law adopted last year, he said. Moreover, many people were jailed on offenses that don't even carry a jail term, only a fine, he said.

Silverstein urged the city also to set up a fund to compensate those who have been jailed illegally but stopped short of suggesting how much each person should receive. He said he hopes City Attorney Wynetta Massey is as responsive to these latest demands as she was when the ACLU pointed out earlier this month that the city was prosecuting people for passively begging by holding signs asking for money, which does not violate the city's panhandling ordinance.

We asked the city to respond to the allegations and demands and received this statement:
The City Attorney’s office is in receipt of the ACLU letter dated 10/22/2015. Though we do not believe the City is in violation of Constitutional or Colorado State law, we do take the ACLU’s allegations seriously, and therefore, the City Attorney is working in conjunction with the Municipal Court in order to gather all the appropriate facts and respond to the letter at length.

We also asked City Council President Merv Bennett if he was willing to repeal a city ordinance that appears to accommodate the illegal "pay or serve" philosophy and if he would approve setting up a compensation fund.

His emailed response: "I just received this myself and cannot comment on it until I have received counsel from the City Attorney. I believe they are preparing a response."

When we hear more, we'll update.
Here's the ACLU's news release:
DENVER – The Colorado Springs Municipal Court is routinely violating the United States Constitution and state law by jailing hundreds of people because they are too poor to pay court-ordered fines and fees, according to an ACLU letter sent to the City Attorney and the Municipal Court this morning.

An ACLU investigation uncovered more than 800 times since January 2014 where the Court imposed a fine for a violation of a municipal ordinance and then converted the fine into what court documents label a “pay or serve” sentence. A “pay or serve” sentence orders a defendant to either pay the amount due or serve time in jail at a rate of $50 a day. These sentences resulted in hundreds of impoverished people spending days, weeks, and even months in jail in direct violation of 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, as well as a 2014 state law banning debtors' prison practices.

“As the Supreme Court clearly explained more than forty years ago, the Constitution prohibits imposing a fine as a sentence and then converting it into a jail term solely because the defendant has no money and cannot pay,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Yet, in hundreds of cases since January 2014, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court has done just that by sentencing poor people to jail to pay off their fines at a rate of $50 a day.”

In 75% of the “pay or serve” sentences, defendants were jailed for non-jailable offenses - violations that the Colorado Springs Municipal Code identifies as punishable by only a fine and never by jail. For example, solicitation near streets or highways and violations of park curfew are non-jailable offenses punishable by, at most, a $500 fine. Yet, since January 2014, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court has imposed over 200 “pay or serve” sentences for violation of the solicitation ordinance, and over 65 “pay or serve” sentences for park hours violations.

“For penniless defendants, pay or serve is not a choice; it is a sentence to jail,” Silverstein said. “When the City’s ordinance provides that a fine is the appropriate penalty, the Constitution forbids jailing a person solely because he is too poor to pay. Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in this country long ago, but they are alive and well in Colorado Springs.”

In some cases, the Court imposed multiple consecutive jail sentences on defendants who had more than one non-jailable citation. In one case highlighted by the ACLU, a 45-year-old homeless man was imprisoned for more than 90 days for panhandling, an offense for which the maximum punishment is a $500 fine, not jail. The ACLU noted that each of this man’s multiple citations shows that he was merely displaying a sign inviting donations, conduct that does not violate the panhandling ordinance. Nevertheless, the man served 26 consecutive “pay or serve” sentences, ranging from 1 to 10 days, in jail at a total cost to the taxpayer of more than $5,000.

“Incarcerating the poor for their inability to pay creates a two-tiered system of justice in which the poorest defendants are punished more harshly than the ones with means. Defendants who can write a check move on with their lives. Those unable to pay are imprisoned,” said ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Rebecca T. Wallace. “In a system committed to equal justice for all, accountability cannot mean that people of means pay fines, while the poor go to jail.”

In 2014, in response to an earlier ACLU investigation, the Colorado legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 14-1061, which mandates specific due process protections to prevent courts from jailing individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees. The ACLU’s letter today asserts that Colorado Springs is violating the Colorado statute as well as the Constitution.

The ACLU of Colorado is calling on Colorado Springs to immediately stop jailing people because they are too poor to pay their fines or court fees, and to provide compensation to individuals who were jailed because of their poverty.

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