Poor People Shouldn't Be Punished Because They Can't Afford Bail

If poor people can’t afford bail, they are confined to jail. This has been a common practice across the country.


Almost a year ago to the day, the U.S. Department of Justice declared the current bail system is unconstitutional. The findings stemmed from a man in Georgia who spent six days in jail over a misdemeanor charge because he couldn’t afford the $160 bail to get out. Sadly, the Department of Justice study hasn’t deterred police agencies around the country from continuing the practice.

This, disproportionately, affects poor people the most and it worsens if the person is using a public defender.

A federal judge in New Orleans opted to do her part in eliminating debtors’ prison practices. U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance ruled that the 14th Amendment prohibits jailing criminal defendants who are unable to pay court-ordered fees and fines without giving them a chance to plead poverty.

The ruling ended a three-year lawsuit against Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judges. She discovered that the OPCDC issued fees against poor defendants while ignoring their financial situations, and jailing them when they failed to pay. According to court documents, an OPCDC judge, who was identified in the lawsuit. estimated that 95 percent of criminal convicts in the parish cannot afford an attorney, and a judicial administrator said most do not have assets or a steady income, putting them at risk for being jailed upon failure to pay.

The suit also illustrated the inherent “conflict of interest” inside the institution. With the fees collected, $1 million annually goes into a fund that goes toward judges’ benefits and staff salaries.

Given this information, why would a judge ever rule in the best interest of the defendant with respect to determining bail

President and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Kristen Clarke, told NPR:

“America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color…This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in New Orleans Parish for their poverty alone,” she said, adding that “state officials should take this as their cue [to] begin the necessary work required to end this ‘user-pay’ justice system, built on the backs of the poor, once and for all.”

The majority of the 12 million jail bookings in the United States each year are for low-level, nonviolent charges. However, many of these defendants remain in jail while awaiting their day in court because they cannot afford money bail.

Over 60 percent of people in jail have not gone to trial, and as many as nine out of 10 of those people stay in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail. Keep in mind, this is all under the guise of “being innocent until proven guilty.”

These situations have horrible implications. People can lose their jobs, housing, even custody of their kids if they’re in jail.

How does bail really help to deter crime if the defendant can possibly lose everything

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