ACLU of Colorado Brings El Paso County to Court

The fight to end the longest detention policies.

The El Paso County jail is overflowing with incarcerated people. According to the Chief Justice of Colorado’s Fourth Judicial District, many of these people are being held unconstitutionally. The El Paso County justice system, reflective of the national justice system, is rigged along class lines. Those who cannot pay remain in jail while those who can pay are set free. Until Aug. 13, El Paso County had a policy of imprisoning pretrial detainees who the court had ordered to be released because they were unable to pay a $55 fee to fund pretrial services. This policy targets the most vulnerable and marginalized people of Colorado Springs.

Illustration by Cate Johnson

“We estimate that, in a one year period, El Paso County held over 300 defendants in jail for a total of more than 3000 days only because they couldn’t come up with the money to pay a $55 fee,” said Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney for the ACLU of Colorado.
The El Paso County jail population has been growing steadily for the last five years. In August 2017, when the jail population was 1,791 people, Sheriff Bill Elder described the jail as, “bursting at the seams” in an interview with The Gazette. Despite Elder’s concern, the number of inmates continued to grow. On Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, the jail reached critical mass with a population of 1,839 incarcerated people, exceeding the National Institute of Corrections guidelines by 500 people. Overcrowding at this extreme increases rates of assault, abuse, and neglect, according to The Gazette.

The situation of many detainees is bleak—they are held in lengthy limbo and forced to wait in jail for pending trials because they are unable to make bail or simply pay the $55 for pretrial fees. The desperation of the situation forces many detainees to plead guilty and accept weightier charges than they might otherwise.

These injustices were contended by the ACLU of Colorado in the case Still vs. El Paso County. Jasmine Still was incarcerated for 26 days because she was not able to pay her pretrial fee. She was separated from her newborn and the court fielded custody proceedings against her in her absence. On Nov. 7, 2018, the ACLU took up her case against El Paso County for wrongful detention. On Aug. 13, 2018, the Colorado’s Fourth District ruled in favor of Still. El Paso County is now required to provide $60,000 for Still’s damages, attorneys’ fees, and costs. In addition to the reparations for Still, 183 people detained in El Paso County Jail are eligible for compensation based on a rate of $125 per day of illegal incarceration, for a total of 1,043 days, according to the ACLU.
“I am grateful that this case is finally over and that I can tell my children that I was part of something bigger than just me,” Still said. “I stood up with the ACLU to fight for the rights of 183 other people.”

The ruling to overturn El Paso County’s policy of unjustly detaining people based on pretrial fees is just one incremental step towards gradual reform of our justice system. Even though the ruling affects only El Paso County jail, it sets an important precedent. The court recognized that unjust detention based on an individual’s poverty status is no longer acceptable. The next step will be to expand on this ruling; individuals such as Still and institutions such as the ACLU can push at the system, court case by court case, to make justice departments in Colorado and the rest of the U.S. more equitable.

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