You’re not alone if you don’t know much about Elisabeth Epps. But if you happen to be in jail and too poor to pay bail, Epps might be the difference between months behind bars and freedom.
Epps runs the Colorado Freedom Fund. She is the living embodiment of the social justice movement in Denver. When she isn’t working to end the practice of money bail across the state, she is either raising funds or driving to a local jail with a check in hand. Since she began last spring, she has helped more than 150 people avoid incarceration due to indigence.
I’m not talking about hefty sums. Under its own guidelines, the Colorado Freedom Fund does not accept cases where bail exceeds $500 unless friends and family provide the difference. It definitely does not work with bail bond companies whom Epps sees as profiteers from human suffering. The people Epps helps usually get locked up so poor that any bail, even as little as $10, becomes a jail sentence.
Mickey Howard’s story proves her case in point. Howard had $64 to his name when police arrested him for violating two municipal ordinances.
A Denver court set bail at $10. But after a $30 booking fee and a $50 bond fee, Howard didn’t have enough to go free. Instead, he sat in jail for five days until he got help from the Colorado Freedom Fund. When I spoke to Epps about the case, she told me there was a “disconnect for most people on what $100 means to someone who has nothing — it might as well be $1,000.” Or a million.
I first met Epps when we appeared together on a local news show to discuss Colorado’s version of Jean Valjean, Rene Lima-Marin. She is a striking woman. Passion to change the world pours out of Epps with every rapid-fire word.
She does not have time to help all the people she wants, much less time to engage in banal conversation. The urgency of her manner could seem curt if not for overwhelming compassion evident as she talks about the people helped by the Colorado Freedom Fund.
Epps does not have the capacity to endure even a little BS. It’s a trait that serves her well when speaking with either potential bail recipients or public officials.
With the federal government abolishing money bail more than 25 years ago, states have been much slower to adopt similar change. California became the first state to enact reform only a few months ago. However, with constant pressure from Epps and her volunteers, Colorado may not be far behind.
Already, several counties have worked with the Colorado Freedom Fund to change their bail policies. For example, in the aftermath of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of Howard, Denver has already begun waiving the fees that kept him from meeting bail.
Similarly, district attorneys in Larimer and conservative Mesa counties have started to institute reforms that would end money bail in their respective jurisdictions. Even a few metro area jails have posted the contact information for the Colorado Freedom Fund for those who qualify.
Such broad support bodes well for statewide legislation passing this spring.
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In the meantime, the Colorado Freedom Fund will continue raising money and helping indigent individuals go free. During the holiday season, Epps will be working even harder to be sure families aren’t separated by an inability to meet bail.
Having already run successful campaigns connected to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day/Juneteenth, the Colorado Freedom Fund kicked off its efforts with a “Home for the Holidays” event earlier this month. I wouldn’t be shocked if Epps pulls up to a justice center trailing eight reindeer.
The Colorado Freedom Fund motto reads “Freedom ain’t free, but it’s worth it!” Until money bail in Colorado ends, Epps and her organization will remain the best bet to ante up for those who need it most.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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