Colorado Springs will pay $103,000 to dozens of homeless and impoverished people for their time spent wrongly jailed under a debtors’ prison system, according to a settlement announced Thursday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
The city must pay 66 people incarcerated under the system $125 for each day they were held solely for non-jailable offenses, the ACLU said.
That includes one man due $11,250 after spending more than 90 days in jail to pay court-ordered fines — all for violating a solicitation ordinance that City Council has since repealed, amid concerns it was unconstitutional.
The payout only represented people who were jailed under the debtors’ prison system since Jan. 1, 2014. Anyone wrongly jailed prior to that, will get nothing, because the statute of limitations for suing the city has lapsed.
The settlement served as a warning to other cities to avoid establishing such a debtors’ prison, said Mark Silverstein, the ACLU of Colorado’s legal director.
“You need to be taking a close look at your practices,” he said.
In a statement accompanying the announcement, Mayor John Suthers said he was “pleased” to work with the ACLU to ensure the city was “in alignment with the law.”
“While we admittedly found some areas that required correction, I am pleased to report that our Municipal Court, City attorneys and Councilmembers worked expeditiously to correct the situation upon learning of the non-compliance,” the statement said. “Overall, this process has been collaborative and productive and ultimately will result in improvements to our court and enforcement processes.”
The ACLU first demanded the payout in October, when it accused Colorado Springs of effectively creating a debtors’ prison by jailing homeless or impoverished people who could not pay court-ordered fines.
From January 2014 through mid-October, more than 800 cases ended in “pay-or-serve” sentences. In those cases, people had to immediately pay court-ordered fines or face jail, where they could earn a $50-a-day credit.
In 75 percent of those cases, city code specifically said the crimes could only be punishable only by fines — not jail.
And many people were jailed under a solicitation ordinance that City Council has since repealed, amid concerns it violated residents’ free-speech rights.
At the time, the ACLU made two demands: End “pay-or-serve” sentences and create a fund to compensate people who had been wrongly jailed.
Colorado Springs met the first demand by ending the practice by the end of 2015. City Council later voted to repeal ordinances that allowed municipal judges to impose such “pay-or-serve” jail sentences on people who couldn’t pay their fines.
Thursday’s announcement appears to address the ACLU’s second demand.
In a rarity, the settlement happened without the ACLU ever having filed a lawsuit, Silverstein said.
“The city pretty quickly agreed this practice was not defensible,” he said.
Anyone seeking a share of the settlement has until Dec. 31 or two years from the date of incarceration — whichever is later — to request the funds, according to the city.
Check back to gazette.com for more information as the story develops.
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