OPELIKA, Ala. – Judicial officials and the sheriff of Randolph County, Alabama, are violating the constitutional rights of people charged with misdemeanors and felonies by jailing them following arrest if they can’t afford to pay bail, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Alabama, and the Civil Rights Corps. Those who face the same charges but can afford the bail amounts are freed until trial.
“Jails are not meant to warehouse poor people who have not been convicted of a crime,” said SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke. “Keeping people in jail cells for weeks or months simply because they can’t afford to pay for their freedom coerces people to plead guilty even if they are innocent, wastes taxpayer money on unnecessary detention, and is a form of wealth-based discrimination prohibited by the Constitution.”
The suit, filed on behalf of 29-year-old Kandace Edwards in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Eastern Division, accuses officials in the county of operating a “two-tiered” system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This is one of the first lawsuits in the country to challenge felony bail practices.
Edwards, who has two young children and is seven months pregnant, was arrested Wednesday for forging a $75 check. She is currently being held in jail because she cannot afford to pay $7,500 in bail that is required by the court’s bail schedule.
Edwards, who served in the Army National Guard from 2006 until 2010, recently lost her job due to her high-risk pregnancy and has been homeless since December. She has a history of mental health issues.
“Randolph County reveals the cruelty of money bail. The government robs poor people of their liberty for no other reason than their inability to pay,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “They sit in jail for days or weeks waiting for a release hearing, while their jobs disappear and their families suffer. Meanwhile, those who can pay go home, with the time and freedom to prepare for trial.”
Randolph County’s system of wealth-based detention is especially arbitrary. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount. If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically, without regard to the likelihood that the person will flee before trial or place the community in danger. Those who cannot pay must remain in jail, waiting up to a month for a release hearing. Those who are not released after the hearing face six months in jail or longer until trial because Randolph County schedules trials twice per year.
Studies show that money bail systems like Randolph County’s make it more likely that innocent people will plead guilty before trial so they can get out of jail.
Nationwide, as in Randolph County, a person’s ability to pay bail is the most important factor in determining whether someone is released or detained following arrest. Yet research demonstrates that money bail does not improve public safety or court appearance rates. Non-financial conditions of release—like unsecured bond, reporting obligations, and phone and text message reminders of court dates—are more effective at ensuring public safety and court appearance.
In Randolph County, money bail has a devastating impact. Nearly one out of every five people in the county lives in poverty. Almost half of the residents 17 and older are unemployed. Wealth-based detention practices are also particularly costly for the county, where the Legislature recently passed a sales tax increase to build a new jail. The current jail is operating at more than three times capacity, and the vast majority of the people detained there are being held prior to trial.
“With its money bail system, Randolph County is heaping undeserved punishment on its poorest residents,” said Randall Marshall, acting executive director of the ACLU of Alabama. “The county is violating the constitution and hurting the county’s most vulnerable families. Other Alabama counties are now changing their bail systems to make them more just, and Randolph County must follow suit.”
Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention, resulting in reform and judicial orders condemning these practices in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. In 2014, an Alabama federal judge held in a case challenging money bail practices in a municipal court that “[j]ustice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty is no justice at all.”
Following that decision, the SPLC and Civil Rights Corps attorneys worked with the 75 largest municipal courts in Alabama to reform their practices. Those courts no longer require most arrestees to pay for their release, resulting in a dramatic decrease in the state’s municipal court jail population. In Hoover, the jail population dropped by almost 90 percent.
The lawsuit against Randolph County is a continuation of the efforts to end wealth-based bail detention in Alabama and is challenging that practice for the first time in the state district court.
“No human being should be kept in a jail cell because she cannot make a monetary payment. This lawsuit and others like it will eradicate the notion of wealth-based human caging from our society,” said Alec Karakatsanis with the Civil Rights Corps.
For the complaint and more information about the case:
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Alabama with offices in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi, is a nonprofit civil rights organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry, and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society. For more information, see www.splcenter.org.
ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice is dedicated to ending mass incarceration in the United States. It is an unprecedented, multiyear effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and challenge racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Bail reform is one of the campaign’s top priorities. For more information, visit www.aclu.org.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama is freedom’s watchdog, working in the courts, legislatures, and communities to defend the individual rights and personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For more information, visit www.aclualabama.org.