ICYMI: Justice Dept. Aims to Shut Down Debtors’ Prisons

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 22, 2016

In an amicus curiae—friend of the court—brief filed on August 18, the U.S. Department of Justice said that it is unconstitutional for courts to jail defendants who can’t afford to pay cash bail.

The brief was filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in support of the plaintiff in Maurice Walker v. City of Calhoun, Georgia. Walker was arrested in September 2015 for “being a pedestrian under the influence” and was put in jail for six nights because he was unable to post the $160 bail. Meanwhile, the city regularly released people who could pay a preset bond amount.

Walker filed a class action suit against the city of Calhoun, Georgia, alleging that the city’s bail practice violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed, and the city appealed the decision.

The case specifically hopes to establish precedent at the state and local levels, as federal counts are already bound by the Bail Reform Act of 1966, which, per the brief, “abolished the use of bail conditions that discriminate against indigent arrestees in the federal system.” City and state courts—like the one in Ferguson—have come under fire for using the justice system as a revenue stream. And Black and Latinx people are disproportionately arrested and jailed at every system entry point.

From the brief:

A bail scheme that mandates payment of fixed amounts to obtain pretrial release, without meaningful consideration of an individual’s indigence and alternatives that would serve the City’s interests, violates the Fourteenth Amendment….

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.

In addition to violating the Fourteenth Amendment, such bail systems result in the unnecessary incarceration of people and impede the fair administration of justice for indigent arrestees. Thus, they are not only unconstitutional, but they also constitute bad public policy.

(H/t NBC News)