The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit against Detroit’s 36th District Court, alleging its cash bails system is unconstitutional.
According to the lawsuit, the magistrates who preside over arraignments discriminate against poor people “by locking them up because they cannot afford to pay while allowing those who have money to go free.”
“A person’s freedom should not depend on how much money they have,” said Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan’s deputy legal director. “Bail was originally intended to ensure a person returns to court to face charges against them. But instead, the money bail system has morphed into mass incarceration of the poor. It punishes people not for what they’ve done but because of what they don’t have.”
The lawsuit seeks to reform the city’s pretrial bail system and comes after a move by lawmakers who proposed changes to Michigan’s cash bail system in March.
The legislation proposed in the House and Senate would let more people accused of crimes to be released on their own recognizance before their trial rather than having to pay.
Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel supports the bill and said she has represented many clients who were jailed because of their inability to make bond. She said some pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit so that they could go home to their families.
“When you keep people locked up for really no other reason than being poor, you’re not helping society,” Nessel said. “It actually increases recidivism rates, and it costs a lot of money to the state.”
Detroit defense attorney Kevin Bessant said that he’s represented clients who have been sitting in jail for minor offenses because they couldn’t afford a $500 bond. He added that people are sometimes picked up for a warrant they weren’t aware about.
“It might be a traffic warrant, something minimal,” he said. “Most people who are getting arraigned aren’t there for first-degree murder. They’re there for minor crimes … The problem is they’re picked up on a warrant and taken to the Detroit Detention Center.
They’re arraigned. They don’t have a means to contact their family or their lawyer to say, ‘Hey, I’m in jail. I’ll be out in a couple days.’
One of the cases that prompted the lawsuit includes Jessica Preston, who was held in Macomb County Jail on $10,000 bond for driving on a suspended license in 2016. She claims staff members ignored her when she went into labor and begged to be hospitalized. She ended up giving birth to her son on a dirty cell floor.
The ACLU argues that if Preston were rich, she could have bought her freedom while awaiting trial. However, because she’s poor, her life and her son’s life were put at risk.