The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Glynn County, Georgia, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors. The lawsuit was brought against the county itself, as well as the county’s sheriff, chief magistrate judge, and court-appointed public defender, and seeks an immediate and permanent change to an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against the people who are financially strapped.
Those who cannot afford to pay money bail amounts determined by the county’s bail schedule are detained indefinitely, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay the money bail amounts are freed until trial. Low-income people are also denied effective, meaningful representation at bail hearings where an attorney could argue for their release.
“People who cannot afford to pay bail or hire a private attorney face an impossible choice: plead guilty or face loss of their families, jobs, and homes as they wait for their cases to move through the system,” said Andrea Woods, Equal Justice Works Fellowship attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Georgia and across the country. In Glynn County, the contract public defender and prosecutors alike refuse to grant people the presumption of innocence and ignore the government’s due process obligation to ensure that release upon arrest is the norm.”
The lawsuit argues that Glynn County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps people in jail if they can’t afford bail while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, homes, and communities. With each day in jail, the person’s chances for a fair trial diminish as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many plead guilty even when innocent just to go home.
“The Glynn County court system holds hostage the freedom of individuals arrested for misdemeanors, leaving those who are financially strapped unable to afford the predetermined ransom,” said Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia.
The suit, filed on behalf of two plaintiffs representing a class in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, accuses officials in the county of operating a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the Right-to-Counsel and Due Process clauses of the 6th and 14th Amendment and Equal Protection Clause to the 14th Amendment.
The lawsuit includes a complaint, a motion for class certification, and a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction.
The bail amounts for the suit’s plaintiffs are each $1,256. Neither of the plaintiffs can afford to hire a criminal defense attorney and are thus eligible for representation from the public defender.
Plaintiff Margery Mock is incarcerated on a $1,256 bond on an alleged criminal trespass charge from trying to visit a relative at a motel. Her possessions are currently in a storage unit, which she was living in at the time of her arrest because she does not have stable housing, and risks losing all of her property due to her wealth-based incarceration.
Glynn County’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary, the lawsuit argues. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount.
If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically without evaluating whether the person will flee before trial or endanger the community.
Those who cannot pay the pre-determined bail amount must remain in jail, waiting days or weeks for their first hearing.
The lawsuit also targets the deficient misdemeanor public defender system in the county. Glynn County only pays one lawyer to represent everyone accused of a misdemeanor who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. This contract defender does not visit clients who are stuck in jail, file motions on their behalf, or appear at hearings to request lower bail. The contract attorney instead only meets clients when they plead guilty to sign off on sentencing paperwork.
The lawsuit against Glynn County is a continuation of efforts from the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice to end wealth-based bail detention in Georgia and across the nation.
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice (an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system) has launched a new initiative focused on bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. The lawsuit in Glynn County is the third related filing by the ACLU in 2018 alone, with many to come across the country in the effort to end our overreliance on the money bail system.