Poor People Can’t Be Jailed For Not Being Able To Pay Bail, Justice Department Says

The Obama administration filed court documents calling the practice unconstitutional.

Idaho Correctional Center located south of Boise, Idaho. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE LITCHFIELD
Idaho Correctional Center located south of Boise, Idaho. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLIE LITCHFIELD

Jailing people before they are tried in court because they can’t afford bail is unconstitutional, according to federal appeals court documents the Justice Department filed Thursday.

The filings mark the first time the agency has openly criticized the bail industry. In its amicus brief, the Justice Department wrote, “Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment” and “result in the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent.”

“Bail practices that incarcerate indigent individuals before trial solely because of their inability to pay for their release violate the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The agency’s comments follow its indictment of the private prison industry mandating their closure due to their high rates of corruption and excessive force. The DOJ’s brief Thursday seems to bolster the Obama administration’s objective of improving prison practices that often disproportionately affect minorities.

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 7, 2015, a bail bonds sign hangs on the side of a bail bonds business near Brooklyn’s courthouse complex and jail in New York. CREDIT: AP/KATHY WILLENS
In this photo taken Tuesday, July 7, 2015, a bail bonds sign hangs on the side of a bail bonds business near Brooklyn’s courthouse complex and jail in New York. CREDIT: AP/KATHY WILLENS

The Justice Department pointed out that bail practices became harsher after 1990. Georgia man Maurice Walker has become a prime example for the phenomenon after he was arrested for a misdemeanor charge of public intoxication and jailed for six nights because he couldn’t afford to pay the $160 bail. Walker was released after a federal judge ruled in his favor and demanded police make changes to post-arrest procedures.

Jailing the poor for an inability to pay a fine, bail, or other debt has deep roots in American history that is still widely practiced. California is currently facing a class-action lawsuit for charging defendants exorbitant bail amounts, which then forces them to take out interest-accruing loans from bail bondsmen. The city of Jennings, Missouri was recently ordered to pay nearly 2,000 prisoners $4.75 million who were jailed because they couldn’t pay court fines and fees.