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50 Alabama Cities Reform Bail Practices for Poor

by David Reutter

The prodding by human and civil rights organizations has finally compelled 50 Alabama cities to reform their money bail practices. The push is putting an end to poor suspects languishing in jail solely because they cannot afford bail. Collectively, the 50 cities account for 40 percent of Alabama’s population.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (“SPLC”), in cooperation with attorneys from the Civil Rights Corps, wrote letters to Alabama municipalities to end their practice of incarcerating people charged with minor crimes for days or weeks until their cases are resolved. The reforms wrought by the letters have resulted in a change to bail practices that take into consideration a person’s ability to post bond.

Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director, summed up the injustice of warehousing poor people accused of a crime: “Keeping people in jail cells for weeks or months simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom coerces people to plead guilty even if they are innocent, wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary detention, and is a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.”

In June 2016, Hoover enacted bail reform that has resulted in its jail population for municipal defendants dropping by 90 percent—from 40 to five people, said Susan Fugua, the Hoover Municipal Court Director. Likewise, Mobile changed its bail practices, resulting in a 45 percent decrease in the municipal jail population.

“Before Mobile changed its bail practices, many people were sitting in jail for up to 30 days because they could not afford to post bail, and many of those people would never ever have received a jail sentence,” said Nathan Emmorey, Mobile’s chief municipal court administrator. “Our bail practice reforms ensure that poor people or others will not sit behind bars unnecessarily.” Emmorey noted the reform has not had a negative impact on public safety or the rate of people showing up for court dates.

Jefferson County is another example of a municipality that successfully implemented bail reform. “For decades, Birmingham’s courts have condemned people to extra jail time just because they’re poor,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Defendants charged with the same exact crime can either buy their freedom immediately or sit in jail for weeks on end if (they) don’t have enough money. The judges’ reforms will bring a welcome end to this injustice.”

Under the county’s new system, defendants who cannot pay the bail amount assigned to the particular offense “will receive a bail hearing within 48 to 72 hours of arrest….” This is in stark contrast to the previous system, in which they waited weeks and even months for a bail hearing. While these are positive developments, we have a long way to go, because bail prejudice persists throughout many jurisdictions in the United States. 


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