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Judge orders El Paso County to release some low-income defendants

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According to a civil rights lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Colorado, El Paso County spends around $250,000 on needless pretrial detention for people who judges have found no need to detain. Low-income defendants are being held because they can't afford a $55 service fee.

Pretrial detention is meant for people who are flight risks or who pose a danger to the community. Those whom the court decides are non-dangerous and who will probably show up at their court dates are released on their own recognizance. Or, they would be if they could afford that pretrial services fee being charged by El Paso County.

The fee isn't a barrier in other counties, according to the Denver Post. Across the state, people are released immediately when judges place them on personal recognizance bonds.

"However, in El Paso County, it is only those detainees who have the means to pay a county-imposed fee of $55 who have the opportunity to gain prompt release upon the court's grant of a supervised personal recognizance bond," reads the ACLU's lawsuit. Ironically, people who plead guilty are often released immediately to await sentencing.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, a Colorado Springs woman, was determined not to be a flight risk or a danger to the community and was ordered released on a personal recognizance bond. When she could not afford the fee, she was held for 27 days even though she had been released on her own recognizance.

The detention nearly cost her custody of her children, and she ultimately decided to plead guilty simply to get out of jail so she could fight for her children. She was released right away.

"Pretrial jail stays can and do cause legally innocent people to lose out on pay, lose their job, lose custody of their children, lose their housing and lose their vehicle," notes the ACLU.

Her detention was a fiscally questionable decision by El Paso County, according to the ACLU. In an effort to collect $55, it spent around $2,400 to detain the woman.

Detaining defendants merely because they cannot afford a fee is also unconstitutional, the civil rights group says. Now, El Paso County's chief district judge has now issued an order ending the practice of holding defendants in lieu of the fee.

In 2014, Colorado limited the circumstances under which low-income defendants could be detained simply because they could not afford fines. Last year, the state passed a new law limiting judges' ability to spread payments over time and prohibiting the automatic issuance of warrants for failure to pay an installment.

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