Colorado bill to limit use of jail and cash bail for people awaiting court fails in committee

By: - June 7, 2021 6:43 pm
Denver county jail

The outside of building that is a part of the Denver Sheriff Department’s County Jail Division, taken on Feb. 6, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

A bill that sought to limit arrests and the use of cash bail for people accused of committing low-level, nonviolent offenses died in the Colorado House Finance Committee on Monday.

At the heart of the legislation was a push to reduce the number of people being held in jail while awaiting court — a group that is disproportionately represented by low-income individuals and people of color. 

The bill was named in honor of Michael Marshall and Marvin Booker, both Black men who died in Denver while being held in jail for minor, nonviolent offenses. 

“Those voting against this bill obviously feel that the practice of arresting people for anything and everything and holding poor people in jail is a good system,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, who testified in support of the bill. “I think it’s shameful that fearmongering and lies prevailed.”

The four Republican committee members voted against the legislation, as well as two Democrats, Reps. Shannon Bird and Matt Gray, who are both attorneys. 

The legislation was a slimmed down version of a more robust bill, Senate Bill 21-62, which Senate Democrats abandoned over fear that misinformation about the bill was muddying their messaging. 

The bill faced heavy opposition from law enforcement-aligned groups such as the Colorado Municipal League, various Colorado police departments and the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police. 

The bill would have directed law enforcement officers to issue court summons or tickets instead of arresting someone for low-level offenses such as traffic violations or nonviolent misdemeanor crimes. 

The legislation included a long list of exemptions that would still allow arrest for crimes that involve a direct harm to a victim, such as sexual assault, if the crime involves an illegal possession or use of a gun, driving under the influence, a credible threat to a school, or if an officer is unable to verify someone’s identity.

The bill also sought to prohibit a court from issuing a monetary bond for a misdemeanor offense; municipal offense; class 4, 5, or 6 felony (such as trespassing, low-level burglaries and criminal mischief); or drug felonies. 

Instead, the court would have been directed to issue a personal recognizance bond — essentially an agreement that the person will come back to court for their next hearing. 

The proposals were similar to the temporary changes enacted by sheriffs and district attorneys during parts of the pandemic that put limits on who could be arrested for what crimes, and when courts could issue cash bonds. As a result, Colorado jail populations decreased by over 46% between April and September in 2020.

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Moe Clark
Moe Clark

Moe Clark is a freelance journalist and former Colorado Newsline reporter who covered criminal justice, housing, homelessness and other social issues.