A tiny city is allegedly jailing people for being poor, and the Justice Department is weighing in on the case

The Justice Department is weighing in on a proposed class action lawsuit claiming an Alabama city jails people for minor offenses like shoplifting simply because they can’t afford to pay a cash bond for their release.

The “statement of interest” filed last month tells the court that “fixed-sum bail systems” like the one Clanton, Alabama allegedly has are illegal. It’s highly unusual for the Justice Department to assist in a federal lawsuit over a city’s allegedly unlawful bail scheme, the Wall Street Journal has reported.

“The basic constitutional rights at stake are very clear,” Varden’s attorney,
Alec Karakatsanis, told Business Insider in an emailed statement. “The Department of Justice correctly recognised that it violates fundamental and longstanding principles of equality and fairness at the core of our legal system to keep a human being in a cage because of her poverty.”

The lawsuit was filed against the city of Clanton, Alabama by 41-year-old mother of two Christy Dawn Varden, who claims that the jail there has implemented a bail system that “has no place in modern law.

Varden claimed last month that she was held in a Clanton jail for minor misdemeanour offenses and was told she would only be released if she paid a cash bond of $US2,000 to the city — $US500 for each of her four misdemeanour offenses relating to shoplifting, resisting arrest, possession of drug paraphernalia and failure to obey a police officer, according to the lawsuit. Darden has “several severe physical and mental illnesses that prevent her from working” and depends on $US200 per month in food stamps to survive, according to her lawsuit.

Anyone arrested for a minor misdemeanour offence in Clanton is informed at the police station that an upfront cash payment of $US500 can buy them their freedom, according to the lawsuit. Arrestees who can’t pay, however, can remain in jail for as long as a week before making their first court appearance.

In other words, under this system, people charged with crimes as minor as shoplifting can be held in jail after an arrest solely because they’re poor — even though they’re presumed innocent.

In its statement, the DOJ strongly condemns any “two-tiered” justice system that undermines the fairness of our criminal justice system by treating people differently based on their socio-economic status.

“Incarcerating individuals solely because of their inability to pay for their release, whether through the payment of fines, fees, or a cash bond, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the DOJ wrote in its statement. “It also constitutes bad public policy.”

Bail systems that keep people in jail because they cannot pay off their legal debts implicitly violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by discriminating against the poor, the Justice Department has said. Those who can afford to pay their court fines are released immediately; those who can’t may remain in jail.

“A disproportionate number of [inmates] are poor,” Attorney General Eric Holder noted at the National Symposium on Pretrial Justice in 2011, according to the DOJ filing. “They are forced to remain in custody — for an average of two weeks, and at a considerable expense to taxpayers — because they simply cannot afford to post the bail required.”

Karakatsanis echoed Holder’s sentiment: “There are approximately 500,000 Americans in jail every day because they cannot afford to pay a money bail,” he said. “This is happening across almost the entire country.”

We reached out to a lawyer for the city, who gave us this statement: “The City of Clanton relies on its pleadings and briefings whereby the plaintiff’s claims have been denied. The City strongly disagrees with the plaintiff’s allegations. The City is vigorously prosecuting its defenses.”

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