DOJ: Jailing People Just Because They Can't Afford Bail Is Unconstitutional
Holding a defendant in jail simply because they can’t afford a fixed bail amount is unconstitutional, the Justice Department said in a brief it filed Thursday in a Georgia lawsuit.
"Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment," the department said in an amicus brief, referring to the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
"Fixed bail schedules that allow for the pretrial release of only those who can play, without accounting for the ability to pay unlawfully discriminate based on indigence," said the department.
The friend-of-the-court brief marks the first time the Justice Department has submitted a legal opinion in a federal court on bail systems in state and local courts. It also is the most direct action by the Obama administration to push states to reform court practices it has said discriminates against poorer defendants. Those defendants tend to be black, Latino, or high school dropouts, as well as those with mental illness or substance abuse problems.
The Justice Department filed the brief with the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals in the class-action lawsuit of Maurice Walker, a Georgia man who spent six days in jail in the city of Calhoun because he couldn’t pay the $160 bail amount for a misdemeanor charge.
Mr. Walker was arrested in September, and charged with a misdemeanor of walking while intoxicated. According to a Calhoun ordinance, the charge carried a preset bail of $160 for Walker to avoid jail before his first appearance before the judge. Walker – who said he lives on $540 a month in Social Security disability benefits – was unable to pay that amount. So, he remained in prison following his arrest while he waited for his first court appearance before a municipal judge.