ACLU: TX County Lets Poor People Languish In Jail With Too High Bails

Two people can be charged with the same crime, but only the rich suspects can "buy their freedom," the ACLU said.

The American Civil Liberties Union is going after Galveston County, Texas, plus the district attorney and all of the judges who hear bail cases there because the organization alleges poorer suspects are forced to remain in jail, slapped with exorbitant bails. 

The civil rights group, partnered with law firm Arnold & Porter, filed a lawsuit against Galveston County that accused it of discriminating against people by setting bail amounts over the recommended limits. As a result, rich people accused of criminal behavior are able to leave and go back to their families and job, while their underprivileged counterparts languish in jail.

Each day a person spends in jail reduces his changes to get a fair trial as witnesses and evidence disappear, the ACLU says. Some people even plead guilty, despite the fact they are innocent, just to end the torment.

The lawsuit stems from the case of 36-year-old Aaron Booth, who was accused and arrested for drug possession charges. His bail was set at $20,000, an amount that Booth could ill afford. However, that was the minimum bail permitted for his felony, according to the county’s bail schedule.

“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” senior staff attorney at ACLU of Texas Trisha Trigilio said in a statement. “Our client is seeking one thing: a fair hearing. Rich or poor, everyone should have a meaningful chance for a judge to hear them out before they are locked in a jail cell — but that’s not what’s happening in Galveston County.”

Booth, who cannot afford a lawyer to represent him, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. This request was denied, leaving him behind bars and unable to go to work. According to the ACLU, Booth was worried the extended time in jail would cause him to lose his job, which he depended upon to help his mother financially.

“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Texas and across the country,” said Brandon Buskey, an ACLU staff attorney. “Galveston’s bail system disregards the presumption of innocence, destroys families, and negatively affects jobs, and homes.”

Booth’s case is the latest attempt of ACLU to reduce discrimination throughout the U.S. criminal justice system, which leads to a disproportionate number of marginalized community members in jail. The organization’s ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice has 37 state affiliates working for the cause.

Texas’ criminal justice situation is dismal. In 2017, around 75 percent of inmates awaited their trials, costing the state’s taxpayers over $1 billion. Bipartisan efforts to solve the bail problem have ended in failure as bail bond companies protest. In the end, people like Booth have been left ignored and forgotten — and that is illegal, according to the ACLU.

Throughout the United States, civil liberties groups have accused the bail system of disproportionately favoring white and wealthy people. Each year, more than 10 million people are arrested in the United States and 70 percent of them haven’t been convicted of a crime.

In September 2017, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported the rising bail, fines and court fees unreasonably hurt people of color.

Meanwhile, for-profit bail companies rake in billions of dollars of cash every year.

Banner/Thumbnail credit: JAMES NIELSEN/AFP/Getty Images

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