Colorado ‘On The Right Path’ To Eliminate Cash Bail With 2020 Bill, Advocates Say

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The crowd cheers after Governor Polis signed a bill limiting cash bail, April 25, 2019.

In courts across the country,  defendants pay money for the right to leave jail while they're waiting for a court date or a trial. Critics say it's a system that prioritizes wealth over justice, by keeping poor people behind bars -- even when they're presumed innocent.

"If you can pay, you can get out. If you can't pay, you don't," said state Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers unanimously eliminated "cash bail" for minor offenses, declaring that judges can't hold people just because they can't pay a money bond. Now, Herod and others want to make similar changes for certain misdemeanors and felonies.

A bill to be introduced in this legislative session would encourage judges to release more defendants without cash bail. The proposal would create a presumption that defendants will be released on their own personal recognizance, without any monetary bail. But it still would allow judges to impose monetary bail when the defendant is a substantial public safety risk or flight risk."

It will be “putting us on the right path to end the cash bail system across the board,” Herod said. The bill is going through the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

Lawmakers have passed similar bills in New Jersey, California, Washington, D.C. and New York. The New York law is particularly controversial, though. Unlike other states, it won't allow judges to consider if someone is a threat to public safety, The New York Times reported.

Herod joined with a bipartisan group, including Sen. Pete Lee, a Democrat, and Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican, to discuss their proposal on Monday. The American Civil Liberties Union also is backing the push.

The details of the bill haven't been released yet, including which charges would be exempted from cash bail. The list could include some violent crimes, but judges would retain the power to order people held if they're deemed a potential safety threat.

The press conference included comments from the family of Michael Marshall, a man with schizophrenia who died after being restrained by deputies in a Denver jail. Marshall was in jail on $100 bond for a trespassing charge.

"My uncle was not able to pay his cash bond -- and I honestly don't know if he was mentally capable enough to even know that he could have paid his cash bond," said Natalia Marshall.

The result, she said, was a "death sentence" for a minor charge. About 60% of the state's jail population are people being held before trial, Herod said.

Other ACLU-backed proposals for the upcoming legislative session include:

  • Require that defendants get a bond hearing within 48 hours of arrest, allowing them a chance to leave jail. That could require counties to spend money on weekend court staffing.
  • Stop charging defendants for the cost of pretrial services, such as ankle-bracelet monitoring.
  • Create a grace period for people who miss court dates. They currently can be arrested if they're late.

Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, but while these proposals have the backing of some of their members, it's unclear whether they'll make it through the process.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to add more details about the proposed bill, and to clarify that it would limit, but not eliminate, the use of cash bail for certain offenses.