We need to end bail system that jails poor people

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People are jailed for being unable to pay fines. (Photo wrcbtv.com)

People are jailed in this monolith in downtown Chattanooga, Tenn., for being unable to pay fines. (Photo wrcbtv.com)

Our terribly overcrowded Hamilton County Jail may get some help from an unsuspected corner – the Obama administration is tackling the fact that right now over 450,000 people are in our country’s jails because they are too poor to pay for bail.

It is a violation of the Constitution to “punish people for their poverty.” As the Eighth Amendment provides, “… excessive bail ought not to be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

By Roy Exum / Chattanoogan.com

For years civil rights lawyers have claimed our traditional bail system is a “wealth-based detention scheme” and now Alec Karakatsanis, the co-founder of the Equal Justice Project, is saying, “This is a huge scandal and it has been ignored over the last 30 years. If you are dangerous but rich, you can walk free. Whether you should stay in jail or not shouldn’t depend on how much you can pay.”

Stranded for weeks

I believe any of us would agree with that. On Monday I went down a list of those listed on the Hamilton County Jail Booking Report that appears on Chattanoogan.com. There are a great number of those who committed misdemeanors and who certainly should have been arrested like those of greater crimes.

That established, most of us will agree that some of those who were arrested should not be held behind bars at taxpayer expense prior to their hearings. Go ahead, study the mug shots and the charges — we don’t need to keep some of them – at our expense. Some get caught in the system, stranded for weeks in many instances, simply because they are penniless.

Oh sure, if a person is dangerous, and likely to flee, or even questionable, that person should be detained regardless of bail – the Justice Department agrees with that. Now consider this: 12 million people are arrested and taken to jail in the United States every year. A full three-fourths of those (9 million) are arrested on misdemeanors. If we could eliminate the cost of locking non-threatening people up needlessly, it would save the justice system … drum roll please … $9 billion (with a ‘b’) per year!

Want another surprise? A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that being released before trial makes a defendant 15.6 percent less likely to be found guilty.

Oppression in North Georgia

This whole resurgence began in Calhoun, Ga., last year when Maurice Walker, said to be poor and disabled, was arrested and booked on a “pedestrian under the influence” charge. The standard bail for such in Calhoun is $160. Maurice didn’t have the money so he spent the next six days in the Gordon County Jail.

Two civil rights groups, The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, and Equal Justice Under Law in Washington, found out about Maurice Walker’s case and they feel certain it violates the Eighth Amendment. The city of Calhoun was sued and immediately adopted a new policy that gives anyone who is arrested a hearing within 24 hours. But, wait, a federal judge struck that, saying it was unconstitutional to keep anyone in jail over the long weekend because they were too poor to pay.

At present everyone is awaiting the Walker vs. Calhoun ruling and the greatest point of interest is now from the United States Department of Justice. It has strongly intervened in the Georgia case and is the biggest attack on the traditional bail bond system since so many were trapped by escalating fees and fines by the courts in Ferguson, Mo., following the riots there.

Please read to the last word

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