In December 2013, we reported about the ACLU of Colorado's efforts to target cities that jail people too poor to pay fines — a tactic that legal director Mark Silverstein likened to the much-reviled and supposedly antiquated concept of debtors prisons.
More than two years later, the ACLU of Colorado has made its biggest score on this front — one that's making national news.
Colorado Springs has reached a $103,00 settlement with the organization in which the city has agreed to stop putting impoverished people behind bars for non-jailable offenses and to compensate those who were improperly confined.
Among those who'll receive some payback is Shawn Hardman, nicknamed Q-Tip. As reported by National Public Radio, which was given a heads-up about the deal in advance of a press conference staged today, Hardman is due more than $11,000 — a sizable sum for someone who's spent more than his fair share of time without a home.
Back in 2013, the ACLU had not yet focused on Colorado Springs; the three municipalities named by the group in relation to debtors-prison-like actions were Wheat Ridge, Northglenn and Westminster. But his comments apply not only to what was happening in the Springs, but also in plenty of other communities across the country despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the practice.
"We're talking about folks who've pleaded guilty to violations of municipal ordinances, and the sentence that resulted was usually a fine only," he told us. "But these penalties are being converted into jail sentences when the person is unable to pay the fine in a number of municipalities. The fines are automatically converted into jail time.
"Jailing Colorado residents because they're too poor to pay the fines is a bad idea all around," he continued. "It doesn't get the fine paid and it wastes resources, because the fine is canceled when it's converted into a jail sentence — and then taxpayers spend money arresting and incarcerating the person who was unable to pay."
Indeed, Denver stopped converting non-payment of fines to jail time in 2012, with expenses presumably a major factor in the decision.
"Costs vary from county to county, but I would guess Denver would have been spending $90 to $100 a day to keep people in jail," Silverstein noted. "And there were thousands and thousands of outstanding warrants for failure to pay."
Nonetheless, Colorado Springs routinely jailed those who didn't pay their fines in such instances. Last year, after documenting more than 700 examples, the ACLU sent the city a letter demanding that the practice stop.
The ACLU also went after the Springs for a panhandling ordinance it deemed illegal — and in November 2015, a few months after former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers was elected mayor, the city tossed hundreds of cases in response.
Presumably, Suthers realized the Springs was on shaky legal ground on the debtors prison front, too. As such, he signed off on the settlement, which includes payments of $125 for each day individuals were improperly imprisoned.
Hence, the sizable sum for Hardman, who was in jail for more than ninety days — and 62 other people will be eligible for compensation.
In a statement about today's announcement, Silverstein said, "“Until last fall, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court was regularly sentencing poor and homeless defendants to jail because they were too poor to pay fines imposed for minor ordinance violations. 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. 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.”
Look below to see the aforementioned NPR report, in which Hardman, among others, tells his story., followed by the settlement agreement.