Local and state court systems across the nation have increasingly come under fire from advocacy groups for using preset bail systems, which they argue are designed to unfairly punish indigent defendants charged with minor offenses, keeping them behind bars in furtherance of no viable public safety interest.
Interestingly enough, this lengthy list of critics of so-called "bail-or-jail policies" recently added a powerful -- and maybe even unlikely -- ally in the form of the U.S. Justice Department.
Specifically, the DOJ recently filed an amicus (i.e., friend of the court) brief in a case before the 11 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing for the first time ever to an appellate court that the pretrial holding of defendants who can't afford to pay a preset bail amount is unconstitutional.
The case in question involved a 54-year-old man who was arrested in the city of Calhoun, Georgia last September for walking while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. Applicable city ordinances dictated that the preset bail amount for this offense was $160, an amount that the man was unable to pay due to his limited income. Consequently, he sat in the local jail for six days prior to appearing before a municipal court judge.
The man, represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights, later filed a lawsuit in federal district court, arguing that Calhoun's preset bail system was unconstitutional owing to the fact that it violated the equal protection rights of indigent defendants.
Citing the "substantial likelihood" of the man's lawsuit prevailing, the federal district court ordered the city to make immediate changes to its bail program, including allowing those charged with misdemeanors to be released on their own recognizance.
The city filed an appeal with the 11th Circuit shortly thereafter, arguing that the preset bail amounts directly correlated to the severity of the offense and that it was acting within the scope of state law.
In its amicus brief filed with the 11th Circuit, the DOJ reasoned that preset bail systems are unnecessary given that those persons who can't afford bail for minor offenses typically pose little threat to community and no flight risk. More importantly, they argued such policies, which failed to account for the ability to pay, are unlawfully discriminatory and unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.
"Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment," reads the brief.
While the 11th Circuit has yet to decide the matter, it's highly remarkable that the DOJ has finally taken a position on this important issue. Here's hoping this issue starts receiving the attention it deserves.
Stay tuned for developments …
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