Civil rights groups filed a federal class action lawsuit Tuesday seeking an overhaul of Alamance County’s bail system.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of North Carolina and Civil Rights Corps filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina on behalf of three people held in the Alamance County jail. The groups say their clients can’t afford to pay the bail set by a magistrate. The groups say no consideration was given to their ability to pay and no attorney was made available to them when bail was set.
The suit asks that Alamance County’s bail practices be declared unconstitutional, holding those who are poor in jail solely because they cannot afford to pay bail.
“A person’s freedom should never depend on how much money they have,” said Leah Kang, a staff attorney for the ACLU of North Carolina, in a written statement. “But right now in Alamance County, people who are presumed innocent are sitting in jail for one simple reason: because they do not have enough money to pay the bail that would allow them to go home to their jobs and families while they wait for their day in court. This unjust cash bail system violates people’s rights, has a devastating impact on communities, and must end.”
Katherine Hubbard, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps said being jailed simply because they cannot afford to pay pre-trial bail is an undue burden on the poor.
“For Alamance County’s poorest residents, detention prior to trial is the norm,” Hubbard said. “Their poverty means they will be detained in the Alamance County jail for days or even weeks before they can request a bail reduction or alternative conditions of release.
“During these days of detention, they miss work, struggle to communicate with friends and family, and contemplate pleading guilty just to get out and return to their lives,” Hubbard said. “Meanwhile, those who have access to enough cash to pay for their freedom are released. This wealth-based system is blatantly unconstitutional and has no place in a country that purports all people are equal under the law.”
Twyla Carter, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said the issue goes beyond just money bail. In the cases in this suit, the right to representation is also at issue.
“Every person accused of a crime in Alamance County should be represented by a qualified defense attorney whenever a judge sets bail,” Carter said. “A skilled lawyer is critical to ensuring that people are released outright instead of being wrongfully detained on cash bail. Detention should be the exception, not the rule, and a system where a person’s freedom depends on how much money they have is a broken one.”
Policy Watch has written extensively about the problems of the for-profit bail system in North Carolina, detailing individual and systemic corruption within the bail system, the system’s frequently unjust impact on the poor and the concerns of veteran jurists that profit and politics have compromised the original intent of state statutes dealing with bail as well as the presumption of innocence.
In a 2016 report, the North Carolina Commission on the Administration of Law and Justice called for pretrial justice reform – reform that would move the state away from a de facto system of requiring all criminal defendants to post cash bail in order be released from jail prior to their day in court.
But there is a lot of disagreement on how to do that.
Some of the state’s largest counties do now have pretrial release programs, but reform advocates haven’t yet seen enough hard data out of the programs in counties like Mecklenburg and Orange to know how effective they are at dealing with the problem.
Last year a state panel began meeting on options for reforming the system.