Justice Department opposes bail without regard to pay

Justice Department: Courts that hold poor people in jail for inability to pay bail may violate Constitution

The Justice Department weighed in Friday on the alleged misuse of detention in local jails, an issue that has become a focus for criminal justice reformers

The department filed a legal document known as a statement of interest in a suit against the city of Clanton, Ala. The case, filed on behalf of several local residents by Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit, alleges that courts in the town, which is in the central part of the state, hold low-income people in jail even on relatively small charges if they can't afford to post bail.

“The criminal justice system should not work differently for the indigent and the wealthy” acting Assistant Atty. Gen. Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.

“Bail practices that create a two-tiered system of justice by treating the indigent and the wealthy differently undermine fundamental fairness in our nation’s criminal justice system,” the statement said.

The suit, filed as a class action in January, cites the case of Christy Varden, a 41-year-old mother of two who was arrested outside a Wal-Mart in Clanton for shoplifting, resisting arrest, failure to obey a police officer and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The suit says Varden’s only income is $200 a month in food stamps. When she was unable to pay $2,000 in bail -- $500 per charge -- she was told she would be held in jail at least until the next court session a week later, the suit says.

The suit charges that Clanton requires bail of $500 for every misdemeanor except driving under the influence, for which the minimum is $1,000. A similar case has been filed against Montgomery, the state capital.

According to the Justice Department filing, any system of bail that does not account for the ability of a defendant to pay violates the Constitution by denying poor people the "equal protection of the laws" guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

The city denies that its practices are unconstitutional.

The issue of bail has drawn increased attention from groups that defend the rights of the poor. Earlier this week, the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit justice-policy group, issued a report saying that the number of people held in local jails, as well as the length of time they are held, has increased in many jurisdictions. Inability to pay court-imposed bail or fines was a major reason, the report said.

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