Jasmine Still, a 26-year-old woman with a newborn, spent 27 days in a Colorado jail after a judge approved her release on her own recognizance.
Why? Still couldn't pay the $55 "pre-trial services fee," charged by El Paso County, so the county spent nearly $2,400 to keep her in jail, according to a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado.
Still, arrested in January after her mother reported her to police over a small bag of meth, pleaded guilty so she wouldn't have to stay in jail any longer, her lawsuit says.
In the last year, nearly 300 people in El Paso County had their jail stays extended because of a failure to pay the pre-trial services fee, according to the ACLU. This week, in response to the ACLU lawsuit, El Paso County's top judge, 4th Judicial District Chief Judge William Bain, ordered the county to release defendants who are granted personal recognizance bonds the day the bond is issued.
El Paso County public information officer Dave Rose defended the program in an interview with local KKTV. "Pretrial Services is a way to get people out of jail who are waiting for trial," Rose said, "and it's a way to lessen the impact on the accused and also reduce the cost of overcrowding and reduce the cost of operating the El Paso County Jail."
The county should not have faced a lawsuit to end the practice of keeping people released on their own recognizance in jail at a rate of $88 a day because they can't pay a one-time $55 fee. Common sense, often absent in the criminal justice system, should dictate that.
Too often, the system's driving force is perpetuating itself. Keeping people in jail for failing to pay a fee that's supposed to facilitate their release makes sense only in that context. It keeps the wheels of justice spinning, which keeps a lot of people employed.
It's hard, too, not to think some prosecutors abuse scenarios like this to extract just the kind of resolution that happened in Still's case—a defendant taking a plea deal to get out of the situation of languishing in jail over an unpaid fee.
Guilty or not, defendants pay when prosecutors choose to target them. It's a system with little incentive, outside of lawsuits like the ACLU's, to become less burdensome for defendants. Were prosecutors forced to pay for their lack of common sense, that would quickly change.