Bill eliminating cash bail for minor crimes in Colorado awaits governor’s signature after unanimous support in legislature

Bill eliminating cash bail for minor crimes in Colorado awaits governor’s signature after unanimous support in legislature

The poorest of Coloradans would no longer sit in jail for sleeping on a park bench or drinking in public because they can’t afford to pay bail for minor offenses if the governor signs a bill that cleared its final legislative hurdle Monday.

The law would ban judges from setting monetary bail for traffic offenses and petty crimes unless a defendant chooses to pay instead of waiting for a bond hearing. The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to pass the bill, following a unanimous vote from the House last month.

Proponents said the law, if adopted, would reduce the number of people sitting in Colorado’s often-crowded jails and keep people from sitting in jail for days or weeks before they have been convicted of any crime.

“Not every low-level offender or traffic violator has the means to pay their way out of jail,” Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “This bill will help reduce incarceration among Coloradans who have not yet been found guilty of anything.”

Defendants pay bail to the court as collateral to ensure they will come back for their next hearing. They forfeit the money if they fail to appear. The bill’s supporters said the system criminalizes poverty because people who can’t afford to pay sit in jail while the more affluent can continue their lives, even if they face the same charges. For the poorest people, even a $50 bail is unaffordable, advocates have said.

RELATED: Colorado’s prisons are bursting at the seams. Lawmakers are searching for solutions.

The bill’s success is a reflection of broad support in the state for bail reform and work by the sponsors and reform advocates to speak with people in jail or who have been incarcerated because they couldn’t pay, said Rebecca Wallace, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Colorado who worked on the legislation. Key ideas for the bill came from a group of women who were jailed, she said.

Beyond a few municipal judges who voiced questions about the changes, the bill faced no organized opposition, Wallace said.

“It’s hard to argue that we should be holding people in jail for $100,” she said.

Not including the Denver court, Wallace estimated that more than 13,000 Coloradans faced charges last year that would fall under the new statute.

On a single day in November 2017, more than 5,600 people sat in Colorado jails before their trials, according to data compiled by the ACLU. That same day, 16 of the state’s jails were more than 90 percent full, including the facilities in Denver and Jefferson counties, the data showed.

If signed by Gov. Jared Polis, the law would add Colorado to a growing list of states making significant changes to how bail works. Growing awareness about the practice has been spurred in part by high-profile cases — like that of a man who sat in jail for three years for allegedly stealing a backpack because he couldn’t afford $3,000 bail — as well as lawsuits challenging the bail system, said Kellen Funk, a professor at Columbia Law School who studies bail.

Communities and leaders from all political perspectives, like faith leaders and judges, are now working toward reform, he said.

“It’s not at all a radical-leftist argument that the government shouldn’t be able to detain people on an accusation,” Funk said. “It’s kind of trans-political right now.”

More than 200 bills are pending nationwide that would reform the bail system, said Shima Baradaran Baughman, a professor at the University of Utah who studies bail and pretrial systems.

New York lawmakers last week passed a bill that would eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanors and some low-level felonies, Funk said. New Mexico, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., have created systems where judges almost never use cash bail, though it technically remains on the books.

Colorado’s proposed law still stands out, Funk said.

“Any movement to actually get rid of or prohibit a cash requirement is pretty notable,” he said.

Colorado lawmakers still have two more bills to consider that would further change bail procedures in the state, though one does not have the support of some advocates who are pushing for reform.

One bill would require all defendants appear before a judge within 48 hours of incarceration for a bond hearing and limits fees associated with bail. It also forbids jails from holding defendants simply because they cannot pay a fee. The bill has garnered a broad base of support that includes the ACLU, bail bond industry representatives and community activists.

The more contentious bill would require judicial districts to create a pretrial system that would require judges to release defendants on the least-restrictive conditions and require courts to develop risk-assessment tools to help make those decisions.

Wallace at the ACLU and other bail reform proponents worry that the risk-assessments will exacerbate racial discrimination and other biases. The organization is also concerned about a provision that would allow private companies to provide the required pretrial services.

“We feel like we’re having productive conversations on all of these topics,” she said.

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