Imposing cash bail for minor offenses is no longer an option in Colorado

State Rep. Leslie Herod’s bill was a top priority and garnered unanimous support in the legislature.
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Rep. Leslie Herod and Elisabeth Epps speak to press after Governor Polis signed a bill outlawing cash bail, April 25, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

A bill eliminating cash bail for minor offenses is now law after Gov. Jared Polis signed the legislation Thursday during a brief but celebratory ceremony.

The bill takes effect immediately. It means someone charged with an offense below a misdemeanor -- including petty crimes like sleeping at a park past curfew or having a dog off a leash -- can no longer be held in jail and made to pay bail for their release.

ACLU Public Policy Director Denise Maes said there are some 13,000 people currently in jail who will be immediately affected. They will be able to be released under what's called a personal recognizance bond, which essentially means release with the promise of returning for a court date.

Bail reform advocate Elisabeth Epps has helped post bond for more than 200 people over the past year and supported the bill.

The work is done through her organization, Colorado Freedom Fund, which helps pay for low-level bonds for petty offenses. More than half of the people she's helped post bond for this year were charged with trespassing and park-curfew offenses. So, essentially, it was usually for people experiencing homelessness.

With the bill becoming law, Epp's approach is about to change. Now that bonds for these minor offenses have been eliminated, she said her organization will focus on helping people with larger bonds. Her previous limit was $500.

"It ends one part of it. But we're still going to keep doing the work," Epps said.

Elisabeth Epps watches as Rep. Leslie Herod makes the case for HB-1226 on the state House floor, April 19, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Reps. Leslie Herod and Matt Soper at the podium. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The bill was the top item on State Rep. Leslie Herod's legislative to-do list. She introduced the bill with support from Epps.

"This was number one," Herod said, almost out of breath Thursday after the bill was signed. "When I approached the ACLU, Elisabeth Epps, I said 'I want to do a bail reform bill and I want Elisabeth Epps on board."

Herod added that it means if there's someone before a judge today, the judge can't sentence them with bail for low-level offenses.

Herod, a Denver Democrat, was one of the bill's primary co-sponsors. She said they needed to have balance for the bill to work, which she was able to get. The bill received unanimous support in the legislature.

"Colorado is on the cutting edge of this," Herod said. "We are doing bail reform. We are doing it right. We've got law enforcement on board. We've got rural, conservative counties on board. We are making changes here in Colorado."

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

Among the bill's primary sponsors were Republican state Rep. Matt Soper of Grand Junction and state Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument. State Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, a Democrat, was also a sponsor.

"I think every Coloradan should be proud today not only of what we accomplished through a good, balanced approach to legislation but the fact that we're actually restoring something that's guaranteed in the Constitution back to Colorado," Soper said.

Maes said people experiencing homelessness often faced the petty charges she described. Maes believes removing the cash bails could impact them more than other populations.

"This is one small step," Maes said. "There are some bills that are still coming up in this session that we hope will even add to the impact that this one will definitely have."

Herod said more than 50 percent of people currently in jail are awaiting trial. She believes the bill will help reduce prison overcrowding immediately.

"It's an important civil rights issue," Polis said, shortly after signing the bill. "It's going to be good for criminal justice reform."

The cash bail reform bill wasn't the only Herod-led bill signed Thursday. Her bill requiring jails provide free tampons to jail inmates was also signed by Polis.

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