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Colorado Springs Agrees To Stop Jailing People Too Poor To Pay Court Fines


This is a first. A city will pay thousands of dollars to people who were sent to jail because they owed a debt. It is considered wrong in this country to jail someone who can't pay. Debtors' prisons were outlawed generations ago.

Yet our NPR colleague Joseph Shapiro revealed two years ago just how often courts are locking up people who are unable to make small payments. Now Joe reports on the latest efforts to stop it.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Today in Colorado, the city of Colorado Springs announces it's agreed to a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union. Last year, the ACLU of Colorado discovered nearly 800 cases where people had gone to jail in Colorado Springs when they couldn't pay their tickets for minor violations. Most of these people were homeless, and they were ticketed for things like panhandling or sleeping in a park overnight.

Now, the city has agreed to stop jailing people too poor to pay their court fines. And it will even pay settlements to the people who went to jail. Like Sean Hardman (ph) who was known by his childhood nickname Q-tip.

SEAN HARDMAN: Oh, I'm pretty much famous from Boulder all the way to Grand Junction.

SHAPIRO: Famous as the man at the side of the road panhandling, only don't call it panhandling.

HARDMAN: In our world, there's a difference between a panhandler and a flyer.

SHAPIRO: Between a panhandler and a flyer. A panhandler comes up to you and asks for money. What Hardman did was something he calls flying the sign. The words in black marker on his cardboard sign did the asking.

HARDMAN: My sign always told - said, you know, have a beautiful day. God bless you. And I always put my famous logo, TLA Q-tip. It stands for true love always.

SHAPIRO: In Colorado Springs, police issued citations for Hardman's version of panhandling. To pay office fines, the homeless man then went to jail for 90 days total in just one year. Sometimes Hardman says he was OK going to jail, better than sleeping out in the snow.

But throwing someone in jail because they're too poor to pay has been ruled unconstitutional. Attorney Mark Silverstein is with the ACLU of Colorado.

MARK SILVERSTEIN: The judge can't convert that to jail simply because somebody is poor. That means there's a two-tier system of justice. Someone with some money can pay the fine and walk away, and poor people are condemned to prison.

SHAPIRO: So was Colorado Springs running a debtors' prison? John Suthers is the mayor.

JOHN SUTHERS: Well, you could say that in the sense that people were getting jail time for offenses that should only carry a fine.

SHAPIRO: Now municipal courts will stop jailing people who can't pay. And there will even be money paid out - $125 per each day someone was wrongly held in jail. That means Q-tip Sean Hardman will get about $11,000. He says he will use it on a place to live, and he wants to do some advocacy to help homeless people.

Another 65 people are eligible for hundreds or a few thousand dollars. But because the majority of them are homeless, the city and the ACLU haven't found most of them. The next time one of these men or women gets picked up by police and Colorado Springs, they might find out they've got some money coming to them. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.

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