Colo. lawmakers consider banning cash bail for petty crimes
The bill would ban judges from setting money bail for those charged with traffic offenses and municipal charges
The Denver Post
DENVER — Coloradans facing petty charges would no longer have to pay money before being released from jail if a bill by state lawmakers becomes law.
Under current law, a municipal charge for trespassing or drinking in public can mean weeks in jail if the defendant can’t afford to pay bail before the case is decided. Meanwhile, more affluent defendants facing the same charges can pay bail and be released immediately.
Lawmakers, bail reform advocates and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on Wednesday called the practice unfair and said it penalizes people for being poor. Colorado joins a growing list of states reconsidering bail practices.
“Our criminal justice system is, as a factual matter, criminalizing poverty,” Weiser said Thursday afternoon at a House Judiciary Committee. “That is wrong.”
The bill would ban judges from setting money bail for those charged with traffic offenses and municipal charges. The bill would not apply to defendants charged with traffic offenses that involve death or bodily injury or eluding a police officer or municipal offenses that are similar to misdemeanor charges.
Defendants pay bail to the court — either themselves or through a bondsman — as collateral that they will return for their next hearing. That money is returned if the defendant attends all hearings and complies with court orders.
For the poorest people, even a $50 bail can be unaffordable, said Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, at a press conference about the bill, which she is co-sponsoring with Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta.
Michael Marshall wouldn’t have died in Denver County Jail if he had $100 to pay the bail on the trespassing and disturbing the peace charges he faced in 2015, his niece, Natalia Marshall, said at the news conference. He was killed when he asphyxiated on his vomit while being restrained by jail deputies during a psychotic episode.
“This bill needs to pass so nobody else’s brother, cousin or loved one is tortured in a jail cell for something so petty,” Natalia Marshall said.
A stint in jail can cause people to lose housing, employment and can hurt families, Soper said.
“This bill ensures a minor error doesn’t wreck an entire life,” he said.
The change could also help reduce populations in the state’s county jails, many of which are at or over capacity, according to Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. Last year, Pueblo County officials said the number of inmates in their jail sometimes neared double the facility’s capacity.
Herod and Soper introduced a separate bill last week that would require judicial districts to create a pretrial screening process and to write administrative orders allowing for the immediate release of some defendants without bail. The bill would also make it more difficult for judges to set money bail in any case.
The cash bail system has been under scrutiny across the country in recent years. In 2018, California became the first state to entirely eliminate cash bail from its courts. Denver County Court last year eliminated many fees and fines and decided that defendants couldn’t be held in jail because they can’t pay those fines. Also last year, the Colorado Supreme Court formed a commission to study bail and pretrial release.
Some of those reforms have faced legal pushback. The Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit is considering a case from New Mexico in which plaintiffs argue that people have a constitutional right to money bail.
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