Pregnant Women Can Now Avoid Incarceration Thanks to New Colorado Law | Westword


Thanks to New Law, Pregnant Women Can Now Avoid Incarceration in Colorado

Passed by the Colorado Legislature, HB23-1187 urges courts to offer bonds or other alternatives.
Diana Sanchez giving birth alone in the Denver jail circa 2018.
Diana Sanchez giving birth alone in the Denver jail circa 2018. YouTube
Share this:
More than five years have passed since the world watched, aghast, at the video of Diana Sanchez giving birth alone in a Denver County Jail cell in July 2018. The incident was covered by countless media outlets after Sanchez's lawyer, Mari Newman, released footage of her client's horrifying ordeal in order to force Denver officials to take responsibility.

Newman scored many victories against the Denver Sheriff Department and Denver Health after that, including a $500,000 settlement for Sanchez in 2020. But one of the most lasting impacts is a Colorado law that went into effect on Monday, August 7.

HB23-1187 urged courts to offer bonds or other sentences besides jail time for pregnant women. It was passed by the Colorado Legislature in April with the help of testimony from Newman, who says that if the bill had become law earlier, Sanchez might have avoided her traumatic experience.  

"It could have saved Diana and her baby from the horrible experience that they had to endure," Newman says. "She is the exact type of person who should not have been put in jail."

Sanchez was eight months pregnant when she was jailed for violating the terms of her probation, which related to charges of identity theft for a check she cashed in her sister's name. After being incarcerated for several weeks, she went into labor a few days before her due date.

"Instead of ensuring that Ms. Sanchez was able to give birth in a safe and sanitary medical setting, Denver Health nurses and Denver Sheriff deputies callously made her labor alone for hours...because it was inconvenient to take her to the hospital during the jail’s booking process," according to court documents.

Newman released the video of Sanchez's incident the next year in response to the Denver Sheriff Department saying that it did nothing wrong and Denver Health, which is responsible for monitoring pregnant inmates, not responding at all.

"Unfortunately, over the course of my career, Diana is not the only person I've represented who had a terrible experience because she was pregnant while incarcerated," Newman says.

Her first case involved Pam Clifton, who was incarcerated and went into labor in a Colorado Department of Corrections facility. She was in labor for two days before prison staff took her to a hospital.

"The guard there decided they couldn't bother contacting the medical professional even though [Clifton] was a woman at full term and in labor," Newman recalls. "She was in labor for hours and hours over the course of which she quit feeling any fetal movement, and it turned out her baby had died."

Clifton's baby had been strangled by its umbilical cord, because of a complication known as a Nuchal cord — something Newman says she's gone through herself. Since the situation arises in nearly a third of all births, hospitals are equipped to handle it — but correctional facilities are not.

"When I had my own child, if I had not been in a hospital, the same thing would have happened," Newman says. "The difference is that I was in a position where I was free to go to the hospital. Pam was at the mercy of these incredibly inhumane guards who couldn't even be bothered to contact a medical professional for a woman who was in labor." 

Instead, guards told Clifton to go back to her prison unit because it had "plenty of women there who know how to birth babies," Newman says. "I remember the phrase because it was so shocking. If she had been taken to the hospital like she should have been, her baby could have been saved."

With the new law, pregnant women being charged criminally will have a "rebuttable presumption against detention" — which means that courts will need to prove that there's a risk to public safety if the pregnant woman is not jailed. Otherwise, she can avoid incarceration and instead receive an alternative sentence such as a diversion program, a deferred sentence or a stay of execution that would put carrying out a court sentence on hold.

In order to be eligible for such consideration, a woman will need to prove her pregnancy during each step of the criminal proceedings. Those who are already incarcerated in a county jail or correctional facility can request a pregnancy test, which has to be provided within 24 hours.

"Pregnant people should not be incarcerated," Newman concludes. "That is my fundamental belief. I think this is a good start, and there's a lot more that can still be done."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.