Every day, there are about 500,000 human beings in American jails solely because they are too poor to make a monetary payment for their release. Across the country, people accused of even minor crimes are kept in a cage prior to their trial — despite our legal system’s guarantee that every person is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt — unless the person can pay an arbitrarily set amount of money to secure her or his release. The result is pretrial detention based on wealth-status, not any meaningful assessment of flight risk or danger to the community.
Those who can afford their freedom pay for it, while others sit in jail pending trial simply due to their inability to pay. Such wealth-based detention has disastrous consequences: overcrowding of local jails, lost jobs, lost housing, shockingly 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 even innocent people accused of crimes to plead guilty to offenses that they did not commit in order to cut short 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.
Equal Justice Under Law’s goal is to bring to reality the commonly held value long ago proclaimed by the Supreme Court: “In our society, liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.”
In January 2015, Equal Justice Under Law launched its first challenge to money bail systems in federal court in Alabama. The case, Varden v. City of Clanton, has drawn national attention in the wake of the United States Department of Justice’s decision to file a Statement of Interest in the case. In an historic moment for the American criminal legal system, the United States announced its official position that detaining people solely because of their poverty is unconstitutional. Shortly after Equal Justice Under Law’s lawsuit, the City of Clanton announced that it would reform its bail system to stop using secured money bond for new arrestees. Arrestees will no longer be held in jail until they can pay money for their freedom.
Since the beginning of 2015, Equal Justice Under Law has filed nine class action challenges to money bail systems in seven states. So far, as a result of our lawsuits, cities in Alabama, Missouri, Mississippi, and Louisiana have reformed their practices to end the use of secured money bail for new arrestees. The federal court in St. Louis, Missouri, issued an injunction ending the use of secured money bail in Velda City and a declaratory judgment affirming that the use of secured money bail schedules to detain impoverished people after arrest violates the United States Constitution. Another ruling out of the federal court in Montgomery, Alabama, declared unconstitutional the use of money bail to detain the indigent. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi has also held that the use of money bail violates the Equal Protection Clause. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued an opinion and classwide preliminary injunction holding that keeping misdemeanor probationers in jail using money bail without an inquiry into their ability to pay is unconstitutional. Most recently, a federal court in Georgia held that the use of secured money bond to keep impoverished arrestees in jail after arrest without an inquiry into their ability to pay was unconstitutional and issued a classwide preliminary injunction to cease the practice. These are watershed moments in the movement to rid American courts of the scourge of money bail.
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.
Through class action challenges, Equal Justice Under Law continues to fight wealth-based pretrial detention practices and has achieved reform, working with cities to change their practices and to release arrestees without requiring cash bail. You can read some of the media coverage here: