In an important lawsuit, Denver agreed to stop keeping people behind bars who paid bond but can’t afford additional fees. It’s the latest victory for advocates who call for the end of a system that disproportionately harms people of color.
Denver settled a lawsuit on Dec. 20 for an undisclosed amount to Mickey Howard, a Black man who sued after he sat in jail for five days because he could come up with a $50 administrative fee after paying his bond, the Denver Post reported.
“It recognizes the injustice done in this case,” said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Rebecca Wallace who represented Howard.
This comes against the backdrop of the Trump administration reversing progress gained from President Barack Obama’s efforts to stop state criminal justice systems from trapping poor people in cycles of fines, debt and jail.
Municipalities came under scrutiny during the Obama administration for conspiring to target Black drivers who are too poor to pay their traffic fines and court fees. When they can’t pay, the courts add more fines on top of the original. That debt allows cities to confiscate wages or property. The ACLU and civil rights groups have been fighting against the modern-day debtors’ prison system, which some cities use as a source of revenue.
Howard, then 25, was arrested in June 2018 on charges of domestic violence and public intoxication. He was able to pay his $10 bail and a $30 fee for fingerprinting and a mug shot, but couldn’t afford the $50 bail fee. After sitting in jail for five days, a coalition of community advocates paid his bond fee.
“He has no bank account and only intermittent employment as a temporary laborer. He had no friends or family to bond him out. Thus, Mr. Howard faced the reality that he could spend months behind bars awaiting trial, solely because of his poverty,” the lawsuit said.
The charges against Howard were later dismissed. However, the court billed Howard for additional fees, which included $504 for an ankle monitor he used before his case was dismissed and a $50 failure-to-pay collection fee when he could not pay the bills.
In a separate case, advocates won a victory in August 2018 when a federal judge in Louisiana ordered courts in Orleans Parish to allow a “neutral forum” to determine whether defendants can afford to pay court fees before sending them to jail for nonpayment.
“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system. America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in Orleans Parish for their poverty alone,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said after the federal court’s ruling.
Howard said he filed his suit to get justice and to prompt a policy change.
“Nobody should be stuck behind bars just because they cannot pay. With the ACLU’s help, we have made lasting change, and that makes me proud,” he said.