No one should spend time in jail simply because he or she is poor, but every day about 450,000 Americans sit in jail for that very reason.
Despite the constitutional guarantee that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, our current money bail system forces arrestees to pay an arbitrary amount of bail money to secure release before trial. Those who can afford to purchase their liberty walk free, while those who can’t languish in jail pending trial. The result is discriminatory pretrial detention based on wealth-status, not any meaningful assessment of flight risk or danger to the community.
Equal Justice Under Law is dedicated to ending this discriminatory practice of jailing hundreds of Americans solely because of their poverty by filing class action lawsuits against money bail systems all across the country.
The Story of One of Our Clients, Crystal Patterson
In October 2015, Crystal Patterson — then 29-years old — was arrested for the first time in her life after a physical fight with her brother-in-law. She works hard at a low-wage job to provide for herself and her 80-year-old grandmother (for whom she is the sole caretaker). After Crystal’s arrest, she was booked in the county jail and told she could be released if she paid $150,000 — money neither she nor her family has.
The poorer you are in San Francisco, the worse the system treats you. A wealthy individual facing Crystal’s exact same charges could simply purchase his or her freedom. In fact, for the rich, the cost is zero, because the full $150,000 is returned when the case ends. For poorer individuals, private bail companies require a non-refundable payment of 10% — $15,000 in Crystal’s case — and poor arrestees never see that money again (it’s more expensive to be poor, as the cruel saying goes). For those living on the brink of poverty, like Crystal, private bail companies offer a predatory option: Crystal could pay 1% of the bail amount — or $1,500 — and sign a debt agreement to finance the balance of the $15,000 at the maximum interest rate allowable by law. Desperate to take care of her grandmother, Crystal scraped together $1,500. After 31 hours in jail, she signed the debt agreement and went home.
Just hours after Crystal left the jail, the district attorney looked at her file and decided there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges. Crystal was never charged with a crime; she never had a single court date; she has no case against her. And yet, she will be paying off the balance of her $15,000 debt — with interest — for years and years to come. For someone with no criminal charges and only doing her best to care for herself and her grandmother, injustices like this must end.
Equal Justice Under Law is proud to represent Crystal Patterson and others like her as we fight to bring an end to America’s discriminatory money bail practice.
A Societal Problem
Wealth-based detention has disastrous consequences: overcrowding of local jails, lost jobs, lost housing, poor sanitation and medical care, broken families, and drained local budgets. In many cases, an arrestee may be held longer in jail while awaiting trial than any sentence she or he would likely receive if convicted, causing innocent people to plead guilty to offenses that they did not commit in order to shorten lengthy pretrial detention. Individuals who are detained are not able to assist their attorneys in the investigation of the charges against them, resulting in wrongful convictions and longer sentences.
As the U.S. Department of Justice said in an amicus brief filed in our money bail case in Alabama, Varden v. City of Clanton:
It is the position of the United States that, as courts have long recognized, any bail or bond scheme that mandates payment of pre-fixed amounts for different offenses in order to gain pre-trial release, without any regard for indigence, not only violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, but also constitutes bad public policy.
Solving the Problem
Equal Justice Under Law is fighting hard to bring this discriminatory system to an end by bringing legal challenges all across the country, calling money bail unconstitutional because it creates two separate systems of justice, one for the rich and another for people who are poor.
Since early 2015, we have filed 12 challenges against money bail in 9 states:
Thus far, these lawsuits have brought an end to money bail in 7 communities:
- Clanton, Alabama
- Velda City, Missouri
- Ann, Missouri
- Moss Point, Mississippi
- Dothan, Alabama
- Ascension Parish, Louisiana
- Dodge City, Kansas
Our work is also inspiring potential policy changes at the federal and state levels. We have worked closely with Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), who in February 2016 introduced the No Money Bail Act, which would help end the money bail system across the nation. We are an endorser of the bill and continue to work closely as it progresses through the Congress.