Feds Take Stand Against Ga. City’s Bail Policy

     (CN) — In a friend-of-the-court brief, the Justice Department asked the 11th Circuit to find it unconstitutional to keep indigent people jailed before trial solely because of their inability to pay bail.
     Georgia resident Maurice Walker sued the City of Calhoun in a federal class action, alleging it runs an unconstitutional bail practice that imprisons poor defendants because of their inability to pay fixed bail amounts for misdemeanors, traffic offenses and ordinance violations.
     Walker, 54, was arrested last September for being a pedestrian under the influence and was kept in jail for six nights when he was unable to pay the $160 fixed cash bond.
     According to his complaint, he has “a serious mental health disability” and lives on a monthly Social Security disability income of $530.
     A federal judge ended the city’s bail policy, but city attorneys appealed the ruling to the 11th Circuit.
     That led the U.S. Department of Justice to file an amicus brief on Thursday, arguing that fixed bail schedules that do not account for ability to pay “unlawfully discriminate based on indigence.”
     “The court should affirm the district court’s holding that a bail scheme violates the Fourteen Amendment if, without a court’s meaningful consideration of ability to pay and alternative methods of assuring appearance at trial, it results in the detention of indigent defendants pretrial,” the brief states.
     A Justice Department spokeswoman said the brief is the department’s first filing in a federal circuit court to address the constitutional requirements for state and local bail systems.
     “In addition to violating the Fourteenth Amendment, such bail systems result in the unnecessary incarceration of people and impede the fair administration of justice for indigent arrestees. Thus, they are not only unconstitutional, but they also constitute bad public policy,” the 34-page brief says.
     The government says that of the more than 730,000 individuals incarcerated in local jails nationwide in 2011, about 60 percent were pretrial detainees, mostly accused of nonviolent offenses.
     Pretrial incarceration “also often means loss of a job; it disrupts family life; and it enforces idleness,” according to a study on the socioeconomic impact of pretrial detention referenced in the brief.
     “This impact may be exacerbated for indigent individuals who, as a consequence of their poverty, are already in vulnerable situations,” the brief states. “In short, bail practices that fail to account for indigence are not only unconstitutional, but also conflict with sound public policy considerations.”

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