Debtors' prisons have long been illegal in the United States. But many courts across the country still send people to jail when they can't pay their court fines. Last year, the Justice Department stepped in to stop the practice in Ferguson, Mo. And now, in a first, a U.S. city will pay out thousands of dollars to people who were wrongly sent to jail.
Today, Colorado Springs, Colo., and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado announced a settlement that will end the practice of jailing people too poor to pay their court fines. The city will even give payouts to people who were incorrectly sent to jail.
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 the people were homeless — and they were ticketed for things such as panhandling or sleeping in a park overnight.
Attorney Mark Silverstein of the ACLU of Colorado notes that putting people in jail when they can't pay their fines — without giving them alternative options such as community service — has been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Still, an NPR investigative series in 2014 found the practice is widespread across the country. "The law is supposed to treat us equally," Silverstein says. "So when people with means can simply pay a fine and move on and then the poor get sentenced to jail, because they're poor, that's a two-tiered system of justice that violates the principle of equal protection of the laws."
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers says the city will make the changes as part of broader reform to "have a more professional municipal court." And then there's the money that will be paid out: $125 for every day someone was wrongly held in jail.
One of the plaintiffs, Shawn Hardman, will receive a little more than $11,000. Hardman, who was formerly homeless and is now living with his sister, Annie Austin, says he will use the money to pay for a permanent place to live and that he wants to do advocacy on behalf of homeless people.
"I'm pretty much famous from Boulder all the way to Grand Junction," says Hardman. Famous as the man at the side of the road, panhandling. Only Hardman doesn't call it panhandling. "In our world, there's a difference between a pandhandler and a flyer." A pandhandler, he explains, comes up to you and asks for money. What Hardman did was something he calls "flying a sign." He'd stand by the entrance to the interstate, holding a cardboard sign. The words in black marker asked for money.
"My sign always said, 'Have a beautiful day. God Bless You,' " says Hardman, who is known as Q-Tip, the nickname his father gave him when he was born with thick blonde hair. "And I always put my famous logo: 'TLA. Q-Tip.' It stands for 'True Love Always.' "
Courts in Colorado and in other states have ruled that there's nothing illegal about just holding a sign that asks for money. That's free speech. But police in Colorado Springs issued citations, and Hardman went to court multiple times. When he couldn't pay his fines, he went to jail to pay them off — for 90 days, total, in just one year.
An additional 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 in Colorado Springs, they might find out they've got some money coming to them.