DENVER (AP) - In a rare move, a Colorado city has agreed to pay dozens of people, most of them homeless, who were sent to jail because they couldn’t afford to pay fines for minor offenses like panhandling and jaywalking.
The $103,000 deal requires Colorado Springs to pay up to 66 people $125 for each day they spent behind bars. The city said municipal courts stopped imposing “pay or serve” sentences by the end of 2015 and the ordinances that allowed the practice have been changed. It also provided jail and court records of people who were jailed because they could not pay fines so they could be tracked down and paid.
The settlement comes as several other cities, including New Orleans and Jackson, Mississippi are facing federal lawsuits claiming authorities use jail or the threat of it to get people to pay court fees or fines. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people cannot be jailed if they do not have the money to pay.
The group behind those lawsuits, Washington-based Equal Justice Under Law, has also challenged cities for setting high bail amounts that keep defendants in jail as they await trial.
In Colorado Springs, people who told judges they could not afford to pay fines were sentenced to serve a day for every $50 they owed, with some sentenced to multiple terms for multiple offenses.
The ACLU said one of four people it represents in Colorado Springs, Shawn Hardman, served a total of more than three months in jail after being sentenced on four occasions for allegedly violating panhandling restrictions. The ACLU says he only held a sign soliciting donations and never violated the rules.
People eligible to be paid under the deal were also ticketed for violations like staying in parks after hours and having an open container of alcohol, which are most commonly enforced against homeless people, ACLU of Colorado legal director Mark Silverstein said. Besides violating the rights of those jailed, the city’s practice also wasted taxpayers’ money, he said.
“Nothing addresses the real problem that causes people sleeping in a park or sleeping on the side of the highway,” he said.
The settlement was amicable, both sides agreed.
“We were pleased with the process of working together with the ACLU to make our judicial processes better and to ensure we are in alignment with the law,” Mayor John Suthers, Colorado’s former Attorney General, said in a statement.
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