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Efforts to End “Scourge of Money Bail” Meeting with Success

By David M. Reutter

The initiative by Equal Justice Under Law to end the incarceration pending trial of persons too poor to post bail is reaping positive outcomes.  Each day, there are about 500,00 human beings who languish in an American jail due to their inability to post a money bond to meet the bail set by the court.

Despite the U.S. Constitution guarantees that all persons are innocent until proven guilty by a reasonable doubt, many jurisdictions have been implementing illegal debtor’s prisons.  They have extended their policies to set bail without regard to a person’s financial status.  “The result is pretrial detention based on wealth-status, not any meaningful assessment of flight risk or danger to the community”, says Equal Justice Under Law.

The non-profit launched its first challenge to money bail systems in January 2015, filing suit in an Alabama Federal District Court.  The case drew interest after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a Statement of Interest in the matter.  “Bail practices that create a two-tiered system of justice by treating the indigent and the wealthy differently undermine fundamental fairness in our nation’s criminal justice system”, the Statement said.

The suit, Varden v. City of Clanton, was filed as a class-action by lead plaintiff Christy Varden, wo was arrested for shoplifting, resisting arrest, failure to obey a police officer and possession of drug paraphernalia.  The suit alleges Varden, 41 and a mother of two, only had $200 a month in food stamps as income.

The City of Clanton has a bail schedule that requires $500 bail for every misdemeanor, except DUI which has a $1,000 minimum.  When Varden was unable to pay the $2,000 bail, she was told she would have to wait until a court session the following week.  Upon learning of the lawsuit Equal Justice Under Law filed on her behalf, the City of Clanton released Varden the day after her arrest.

The parties subsequently reached a settlement agreement, which the district court approved in an order dated September 14, 2015.  The court cited precedent that prohibits “punishing a person for his poverty” and that “the use of a secured bail schedule to detain a person after arrest, without an individualized hearing regarding the person’s indigence and the need for bail or alternatives to bail, violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment”.

The court said that such bail schemes as used by The City of Clanton “result in the unnecessary pre-trial detention of people our system of justice presumes to be innocent”.  Such detention “has a detrimental impact on the individual.  It often means the loss of a job; it disrupts family life, and it enforces idleness”.  “It can also impede the preparation of one’s defense,…induc[ing] even the innocent to plead guilty so that they may secure a quicker release”.  It may even “result in a period of detention that exceeds the expected sentence”.

The new policy approved by the court leaves the standard ball schedule intact, but provides that persons arrested in misdemeanors are released on an unsecured appearance bond so long as no outstanding warrant for failure to appear exists.  If such a warrant exists, the arrestee is required to post a cash bond, commercial surety bond, or signatory bond backed by real property.  A hearing must be held within 48 hours for persons who do not obtain immediate release under the policy to determine whether release is obtainable and what conditions may apply.  See:  Jones v. City of Clanton, USDC, M.D. Alabama, Case No 2:15-cv-34.

Equal Justice Under Law filed similar actions in Mississippi and Missouri.  Each of the federal district courts overseeing those actions issued orders condemning the bail money system for indigents. Policies were also changed in Louisiana and Montgomery, Alabama, as a result of litigation by Equal Justice Under Law.

“These are watershed moments in the movement to rid American courts of the scourge of money bail”, said Equal Justice Under Law.

See: Thompson v. Moss Point, Mississippi, USDC, S.D. Mississippi, Case NO 1:15-CV-182; Pierce v. The City of Velda , USDC, E.D. Missouri, Case No: 4:15-cv-570.

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Related legal case

Pierce v. The City of Velda



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