Ending the American Money Bail System

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 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:

  • Alabama
  • California
  • Georgia
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Massachusetts
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Texas

Thus far, these lawsuits have brought an end to money bail in 7 communities:

Five lawsuits that we have filed are still moving forward against money bail, including two cases currently in federal courts of appeals in California.

In our case Welchen v. County of Sacramento, the judge has ruled that the California Attorney General can be held responsible for her role in implementing money bail. A victory in this case against the Attorney General could have ripple effects across the state and the nation because it will set an important precedent for state officials’ liability.

In our case Buffin v. San Francisco, Sheriff Vicky Hennessy, in a filing written by City Attorney Dennis Herrera on November 1, 2016, made an historic statement that she will not defend money bail in court because:

This two-tiered system of pretrial justice does not serve the interests of the government or the public, and unfairly discriminates against the poor.

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. Also, in direct reaction to our work, in December of 2016, California Assemblymember Rob Bonta and Senator Bob Hertzberg unveiled a bill to reform the state’s system saying, “California’s bail system punishes poor people simply for being poor.”

Equal Justice Under Law will continue to work hard to end the everyday jailing of hundreds of thousands of Americans solely because of their poverty.

Selected Media Coverage

(for additional media coverage, please contact our Communications Department at commications@equaljusticeunderlaw.org)


TV News Story about California Bail System Featuring Clip of Executive Director Phil Telfeyan Testifying Before State Insurance Commissioner. Piece aired on KCBS in San Francisco on January 31, 2017

Radio Interview with Executive Director Phil Telfeyan about Money Bail on Southern California Public Radio on December 5, 2016

Executive Director Phil Telfeyan Speaking about Money Bail at The Davis Vanguard Court Watch Event on November 19, 2016


“Alabama Cities Agree to Stop Jailing People Too Poor to Post Bond” by Amy Julia Harris for Reveal on December 8, 2016

“California Lawmakers Want to Reform a Bail System They Say ‘Punishes the Poor for Being Poor’” by Jazmine Ulloa for The Los Angeles Times on December 4, 2016

“S.F. City Attorney is Right: Cash Bail Can’t Be Defended” by the Editorial Board for the San Francisco Chronicle on November 2, 2016

“DOJ Asks 11th Cir. To Strike Down Cash Bail System” by Lance J. Rogers for Bloomberg BNA on September 14, 2016

“A California Lawsuit Over the Cash Bail System Could Prompt Changes Across the US” by Paul Elias for the Associated Press (here appearing in in The Los Angeles Times) on December 26, 2015

“Why California Jails Poor People Unless They Pay The Bail Bondsman” by Alan Pyke for ThinkProgress on November 3, 2015

“Group Files Class-Action Complaint to Scrap S.F.’s Cash-Bail System” by Evan Sernoffsky for the San Francisco Chronicle on October 29, 2015

“Court by Court, Lawyers Fight Policies That Fall Heavily on the Poor” by Shaila Dwan for The New York Times on October 23, 2015

“Why Was Sandra Bland Still in Jail?” by Leon Neyfakh for Slate on July 23, 2015

“Following Lawsuit, Tiny St. Louis Suburb Ends Its ‘Illegal’ Bail System That Jailed the Poor” by Ryan J. Reilly for Huffington Post on April 9, 2015

Filed Complaints

Commonwealth v. Wagle, originally filed July 18, 2016

O’Donnell v. Harris County, originally filed on May 19, 2016

Welchen v. Sacramento, originally filed on January 30, 2016

Buffin v. San Francisco, originally filed on October 28, 2015

Martinez v. City of Dodge City, originally filed on October 21, 2015

Walker v. City of Calhoun, originally filed on September 8, 2015

Snow v. Lambert, originally filed on August 25, 2015

Cooper v. City of Dothan, originally filed on June 16, 2015

Thompson v. Moss Point, originally filed on June 12, 2015

Powell v. City of St. Ann, originally filed on May 27, 2015

Pierce v. City of Velda City, originally filed on April 2, 2015

Varden v. City of Clanton, originally filed on January 15, 2015


To help us end America’s discriminatory money bail system, please support our work HERE.