Punished for being poor? Lawyers ask SJC to take up bail issue

From The Salem Daily News

BY JULIE MANGANIS STAFF WRITER Aug 5, 2016

SALEM — The state public defender’s office and an advocacy group are asking the state’s highest court to take up the question of whether cash bail is fundamentally unfair to poor people, citing a North Shore woman’s case.

In a filing on Friday, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and the group Equal Justice Under Law are asking the Supreme Judicial Court to take up the case of Jessica Wagle, a woman who is currently being held on $250 bail in a heroin possession case brought by Lynn police.

Wagle’s case was heard on Wednesday in Salem Superior Court, where her attorney argued that her $250 bail should be reduced to personal recognizance because she cannot afford to pay it and has no family in the area who are willing to post the bail.

Wagle’s lawyer, Shira Diner, told Judge Timothy Feeley on Wednesday that Wagle was being “punished for being poor.”

Feeley disagreed, pointing to a history of missed court appearances, or “defaults,” in her past cases as a reason to keep the bail at $250, the amount originally set on July 19 by Lynn District Court Judge Richard Mori, four days after her arrest.

Wagle, 32, who has struggled with heroin addiction for six years, her lawyers said, had been free during those four days after her arrest, until she walked into court and prosecutors sought to have her taken into custody on bail.

Her lawyers argue that both the SJC and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly held that no person can be kept in jail solely because of poverty — and argue that neither Feeley nor Mori took into account Wagle’s ability to pay.

“This case raises an issue of fundamental importance to the Massachusetts justice system: Can a person be kept in a jail cell because she cannot make a monetary payment?” the attorneys for Wagle say in their filing.

“Although that basic rule has long been a pillar of our legal system, it is overlooked as a matter of daily practice in courtrooms and jails throughout the Commonwealth. This case is about the irrationality and harmfulness of wealth-based pretrial detention. Such a practice is terrible for public safety and grossly unjust,” the filing says.

In his decision on Wednesday, Feeley concluded that, based on Wagle’s record and a history of missed court appearances, the $250 bail was appropriate, and that her inability to pay doesn’t make it unreasonable.

Wagle’s lawyers say judges routinely “misuse” the bail statute and ignore the question of a defendant’s ability to pay.

If economic status cannot be used in determining a sentence or a probation violation, “it has no place in pre-trial release decisions,” especially when a person is still presumed innocent, Wagle’s attorneys write.
http://www.salemnews.com/news/local_news/punished-for-being-poor/article_a1c9e610-a056-516e-9ae3-79a9b571584c.html

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