El Paso County has been refusing to release people from jail just because they couldn't afford a $55 county fee. A judge reversed that policy this week and county commissioners are considering bigger reforms.
The American Civil Liberties Union says 300 people in the last year alone have had to stay in the overcrowded El Paso County jail -- before they were convicted or entered a plea -- because they couldn't come up with that $55.
The ACLU sued the County earlier this month on behalf of one woman named Jasmine Still. A judge granted her a special kind of bond -- a personal recognizance bond -- that doesn't require any money. But because she didn't have the court fees, she spent 27 days in jail. The ACLU's lawsuit is only a week old, but attorney Mark Silverstein says it's already had the right effect.
"Sometimes when we've filed a lawsuit, a government official will say, why did you file a lawsuit? Why didn't you just write us a letter or come talk to us," said Silverstein. "The wheels of government move so slowly. But filing the lawsuit apparently got the prompt action that this wrongheaded policy needed."
In addition to letting people go even if they can't pay the fee ... The El Paso County Commissioners said this week they plan to reform the way pre-trial services work. They want to hire more people to assess whether defendants can safely be let out of jail on a personal recognizance bond. This year about 1,600 people in El Paso County were let out that way, but the county hopes that number can be tripled.
Commissioner Mark Waller said the vast majority of people in the criminal justice system aren't serious criminals.
"They're people who make poor choices in life," said Waller. "And the goal, or at least the goal of the criminal justice system, should be getting those people moving in the right direction again. And certainly one of those things is getting out of jail and being able to keep your job and take care of your family and try to move forward in a productive way."