President Obama’s Justice Department just made another historic declaration for civil rights in the United States by filing a 34-page brief in federal court this week, which seeks to end the practice of jailing people who cannot afford bail. Intended to keep people from fleeing the state before they see their day in court, it has turned into another way the legal system is exploited to extort money from accused criminals – and to keep more Americans locked up, just because they’re unable to afford payment. It’s a major blow to the parasitic bail bonds industry, which privileges a few private companies to pocket bond money from poor people who cannot afford high bail for minor offenses. The Justice Department’s legal brief noted the following:
Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment… under the Equal Protection Clause, no defendant can be held in custody based solely on inability to post a monetary bond. While the use of fixed bail schedules may provide a convenient way to administer pretrial release, incarcerating those who cannot afford to pay the bail amounts, without meaningful consideration of alternatives, infringes on equal protection and due process requirements. Bail practices that fail to account for indigence are not only unconstitutional, but also conflict with sound public policy considerations.
Maurice Walker, 54, was arrested by the Calhoun Police Department for being a pedestrian under the influence. He was kept in their Georgia jail for six nights because he didn’t have the $160 needed to bail himself out. He’s lucky to have survived, because in just the twelve month period after Sandra Bland died in jail after being denied her prescribed epilepsy medication in a Waller County, Texas jail, over 800 other Americans have died in custody, according to a Huffington Post count. Mr. Walker’s lawyers told the court on his behalf that:
When this lawsuit was filed, the City held court only on non-holiday Mondays, and because Walker was arrested on the Thursday before Labor Day, he remained in jail for six days until his counsel could secure his release on his own recognizance. During his pretrial detention, Walker claimed that he was unable to take his daily medication, and that he was allowed out of his cell for only one hour each day. Walker also alleged that “each Monday when court is held, there are commonly about four to six indigent defendants who were not able to pay… to secure their release.”
Walker later filed his class action lawsuit – with the help of the Southern Center for Human Rights – alleging that the City of Calhoun employs an unconstitutional bail practice that imprisons indigent defendants because of their inability to pay fixed bail amounts for misdemeanors, traffic offenses, municipal violations. Mr. Walker won his case, but it was was appealed by the City of Calhoun, and that’s when the Justice Department decided to make an example of Mr. Walker’s case, to demonstrate to judges and magistrates across the country that they cannot allow income inequality to decide who is free and who must remain behind bars anymore.
That’s when the Justice Department decided that as the “people’s lawyers” it was time to step in after six years of study, and having created an epic nine page friendly letter this past March reminding judges and courts to carefully review their bail procedures for income fairness. They agreed with the trial judge in a big way, noting that his decision was based on sound legal reasoning. In addition, federal lawyers chastised the model many courts use for bail as discriminator:
The district court reviewed Supreme Court and circuit precedent recognizing that equal protection and due process principles prohibit punishing people for their poverty. The court then determined that this rule was “especially true” for pretrial detainees who had yet to be found guilty of a crime, observing that other courts have reached similar conclusions.
In fact, where fixed bail schedules are used without meaningful consideration of alternatives that account for inability to pay, indigent arrestees seeking bail are faced with precisely the same type of “illusory choice” that the Supreme Court has recognized “works an invidious discrimination.”
America’s judges no longer have any excuse for holding minor criminal suspects and traffic offenders without bail, just because they’re poor, and once Maurice Walker’s lawsuit is finally ruled upon in his favor and becomes binding legal precedent, it will remove one more burden of income inequality in our justice system and on our streets, roads and highways.
This action by President Obama’s Justice Department is the second major action in favor of a more fair system in one week, which saw them declare an end to the federal government’s use of private prisons within five years just a few days ago. With just slightly under six months remaining, in his eighth year in office, it looks like President Obama is seeking to lock in his gains and make his mark in bringing back fairness to America’s broken pre-trial bail system.
Grant Stern is the Executive Editor of Occupy Democrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report, and a senior advisor to the Democratic Coalition