Judge rules Cullman County’s bail system illegally discriminates against the poor

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People who fall victim to what many deem a “two-tiered” system of justice that’s based on wealth, won a significant victory in Cullman County, Ala. on Thursday when a federal court judge ruled that the practice of jailing those who cannot afford cash bail is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Court Judge Madeline Haikala entered a preliminary injunction order that prohibits Cullman County from continuing to discriminate against the poor through its bail system, which many deem a “two-tiered” system of justice that’s based on wealth.

Her decision follows a memorandum opinion entered last week explaining why the county’s practices were illegal. As the Court explained, “Cullman County’s discriminatory bail practices deprive indigent criminal defendants in Cullman County of equal protection of the law” and its justifications for using a bail schedule are “illusory and conspicuously arbitrary.”

This preliminary injunction will remain in effect while the lawsuit challenging the practice is fully resolved and permanent relief is ordered.

The suit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center(SPLC), Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama on behalf of Bradley Hester, who was held on a $1,000 bond he could not afford.

“Today was a big win for all Cullman County residents because no longer will the county be allowed to treat residents with means differently than those without in our criminal justice system,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director, the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Jails are not meant to warehouse people who have not been convicted of a crime, particularly where, as here, the rich are able to buy their freedom and impoverished people are left to languish in jail. This form of wealth-based discrimination that keeps people in jail just because they cannot afford their freedom is unconstitutional.  We will continue to fight to eliminate wealth-based justice.”

Katherine Hubbard, attorney, Civil Rights Corps, says most municipal courts have already moved away from cash. bail.

“Today’s decision affirms that progress, and encourages more, recognizing that our district and circuit courts still have a long way to go,” she said. “We look forward to working with the county officials to ensure their new practices comply with the preliminary injunction order, and we will continue our litigation against Cullman County until permanent relief is implemented.”

“The federal court’s decision today acknowledges what policy makers, advocates, and state courts across the country are recognizing:  that locking people up simply based on poverty is unacceptable, and that a just bail system must provide robust protections to ensure that those presumed innocent are released pretrial, while only the most severe cases will require detention,” added Brock Boone, staff attorney, ACLU of Alabama.

Brock continued, “Cullman County is in many ways typical of courts across Alabama. Far too often, its bail system results in people being locked away pretrial simply because they could not pay. Courts throughout Alabama, and the country, are setting bail above what people can pay, without any protections to ensure that this draconian penalty is used only when absolutely necessary.”

Others moving away from cash bail

Last month, California became the first state to fully abolish cash bail, a step backers said would create a more equitable criminal justice system, that’s not as dependent on a person’s wealth.

“Several U.S. cities and states have in recent years reduced their reliance on bail, arguing the system unfairly confines poor people, creating overcrowded jails and extra costs for taxpayers,” the Wall Street Journal reported. Those who have been accused of crimes will instead be assessed, released on their own recognizance, given conditions for their release (GPS trackers, placed on house arrest) or held in jail.