Tag Archives: poverty

MA – follow suit & eliminate cash bail

NEW YORK TIMES March 9, 2017.

HOUSTON — It was an awkward scene for officials of Harris County, Texas, who are defending themselves in federal court against a claim that they keep poor defendants locked up just because they cannot afford bail.

On Wednesday a judge and the county sheriff testified for the other side.

“When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was elected after the case was filed.

Both the judge and the sheriff are defendants in the suit. Their defections were yet another sign of the growing skepticism over the fairness of the long-used system of money bail, especially when it is applied to those who cannot afford it.

The class-action lawsuit contends that on any given night, several hundred people are in the Harris County jail on misdemeanor charges solely because they cannot make bail. If defendants with bail bond amounts of $500 or less had simply been released, the county would have saved $20 million over six years, according to a “very conservative” estimate by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania.

The practice of setting money bail, particularly for low-level offenses, has come under heavy criticism, and states like New Jersey and Maryland have sharply curtailed its use in recent months. A growing body of evidence shows that even a brief detention before trial can disrupt lives and livelihoods, make case outcomes worse and increase the likelihood that the defendant will commit future crimes. Putting a price on pretrial liberty can allow those with money to go free even if they are dangerous, and keep the poor in jail even if they are not.

Civil rights lawyers have mounted a series of lawsuits against bail practices like those in Harris County, where people without ready money can spend up to four days in jail before getting a chance to even contest their bond amount. Almost a dozen similar cases across the country have been settled with significant changes to the local bail system.

But two of the biggest challenges, in Houston and San Francisco, are still in play. And in both places, key officials have sided with the bail critics.

In San Francisco, the city attorney, Dennis Herrera, and the state attorney general at the time, Kamala Harris, declined to defend against the lawsuit, saying the bail system was unfair. In Houston the district attorney, Kim Ogg, weighed in with an impassioned friend-of-the-court brief, writing, “It makes no sense to spend public funds to house misdemeanor offenders in a high-security penal facility when the crimes themselves may not merit jail time.” Like Sheriff Gonzalez, Ms. Ogg is newly elected.

Those left to defend the system have had a lonely uphill fight. James Munisteri, a private lawyer hired by Harris County, faced calls for his removal after he told the court at an earlier hearing that misdemeanor defendants might be in jail not because they couldn’t afford to post bond, but because they “want” to be there. “If it’s a cold week,” he added.

The judge, Lee H. Rosenthal of Federal District Court, was skeptical of that contention, calling it “uncomfortably reminiscent of the historical argument that used to be made that people enjoyed slavery, because they were afraid of the alternative.”

The case was filed last May on behalf of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, who was arrested on charges of driving with an invalid license. She spent over two days in jail because she couldn’t afford to pay her $2,500 bond. Civil Rights Corps, the organization whose director, Alec Karakatsanis, has led the legal attacks on unaffordable bail across the country, joined with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a nonprofit legal defense organization, and Susman Godfrey, a law firm, to bring the case.

So far, the county has spent $1.2 million on outside lawyers to defend itself.

The Supreme Court has held that liberty before trial should be the norm, and that bail conditions must be set based on the individual’s circumstances. Bail is not meant to be punitive; it is intended simply to ensure that defendants return to court. Texas law requires consideration of “the ability to make bail.”

But the videos made it clear that bail was routinely set with no inquiry into defendants’ ability to pay — or with the full knowledge that they could not. When suspects are first booked, their bail is set using a fee schedule based on the charge and on criminal history. At the probable cause hearing, where typically no lawyer is present, the hearing officer can raise or lower the bond, or grant a personal bond, which allows the defendant to go without an upfront payment.

The county argued that it began reforming its pretrial release system before the lawsuit was filed. It recently issued guidelines recommending the use of personal bonds for people accused of 12 low-level misdemeanors. Beginning on July 1, it plans to make public defenders available at the probable cause hearing. The bail fee schedule will disappear, to be replaced by a risk assessment, a more sophisticated method of determining an arrestee’s likelihood of fleeing or of committing a new crime.

Any injunction striking down parts of its pretrial release system would hamper these ongoing reforms, county lawyers argued. They also contended that a court order would tie judges’ hands, reducing their discretion and potentially allowing dangerous detainees back onto the streets. “There are a category of high-risk detainees who should not be released,” Melissa Lynn Spinks, a lawyer representing the county, said.

Besides the sheriff, another star witness for the plaintiffs was Darrell Jordan, elected as a Harris County criminal court judge last November. At first, Mr. Jordan said, he followed the bail practices of his 15 fellow judges. But he radically changed his approach after learning of research showing that locking people up makes them more likely to be repeat offenders.

Mr. Jordan began releasing nearly all defendants, either on a personal bond or on one they could afford. .

A homeless man who recently came before Mr. Jordan was prepared to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge just to gain release, but changed his mind when he realized that the judge was willing to let him out of jail immediately.

”He had never heard of a personal bond,” the judge remembered. “He started crying when I told him he could go home.”

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End the criminalization of poverty

We have the opportunity to end the criminalization of poverty and “Fine Time” curing the 2017-18 session of the Massachusetts State Legislature.  Sen. William Brownsberger has introduced a comprehensive bill to prevent people from imprisonment because of inability to pay fines.

Read more in this opinion column published in USA Today.

Suspending driver’s licenses creates a vicious cycle: Column

Some states are recognizing the injustice of linking to the ability to pay court-imposed fines and fees.

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Though our nation feels more divided than ever, there is a common concern that cuts across party lines and entrenched ideological silos: a pervasive sense that we have failed to give all Americans an equal opportunity to attain the American dream.

Despite our best efforts, government policies too often create obstacles that prevent Americans from climbing the ladder of opportunity. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the criminal justice system.

It is universally understood that the justice system should be fair — and that those who violate the law should be held accountable, pay their dues, and move on. But too often, justice comes only for those who can afford it. And all of us pay the price.

Consider the case of Damian Stinnie. A product of Virginia’s foster care system, Damian graduated from high school with a 3.9 grade point average and went right to work, making close to minimum wage. Then he lost his job. In the four months it took for him to find a new position — another low-paying job in retail — he received four traffic citations. The total owed on the resulting fines and four sets of court costs was just over $1,000.

Making only about $300 a week, Damian could not pay his fines and fees in 30 days. The court gave him no other payment options. Instead, with no notice and no inquiry into his ability to pay, his driver’s license was automatically suspended by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As a result, Damian was caught between two untenable choices: risking more fines and possible jail time if caught driving with a suspended license, or losing his job because he didn’t have a way to get to work. Months later, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma, he then had to choose between breaking the law and making his doctors’ appointments.

Second, license suspension for conduct other than drunken driving makes us less safe by diverting resources from critical public safety concerns to arresting, prosecuting, adjudicating and sometimes incarcerating defendants for license suspension cases.

How can we stop this troubling and growing trend?

 

This type of commonsense criminal justice reform has strong bipartisan support. Even in a divided nation, we can agree that our criminal justice system must dispense justice fairly and equally, and that policies disproportionately punishing the poorest among us have no place in our courts.

Marc Levin is policy director of Right on Crime. Joanna Weiss is director of Criminal Justice Reform, The Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @USATOpinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To submit a letter, comment or column, check our submission guidelines.

Debtors prisons exist in Massachusetts

BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF Chief Justice Ralph Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court says a review of so­called fine­time practices is underway. Scores of indebted become ‘fine­time’ inmates. Posted from The Boston Globe.

By Milton J. Valencia                                GLOBE STAFF NOVEMBER 07, 2016

They call it “fine­time” — a questionable practice in which defendants “pay off” court fines and fees by serving time behind bars, even if they never committed a crime deserving of jail time in the first place.

A sampling of cases in Massachusetts from last year showed more than 100 instances in which defendants were sent to jail because they could not afford to pay a fine, a practice first laid bare in the federal investigation into the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago, sparking outcries of discrimination in that state. The 105 examples were cited in a report to be filed this week by the state Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. Among them:

■ A defendant charged with driving under the influence of alcohol was ordered to serve 25 days in jail for failing to pay $760 in fines and fees. “Do I have any say on this? Like, any defense?” the defendant asked.

■ In Leominster District Court, a defendant who owed $175 two years after a shoplifting offense was sent to jail, even though he told the judge he intended to pay the money within a month.

■ A third case was described to the Globe directly by the defendant, identified as James K. He told state officials he was looking to get his driver’s license, so that he could apply for a job, after serving prison time for a robbery in New York City when he was a teenager, he said. However, he had outstanding fines for a drug arrest years earlier in Dudley District Court.

When he returned to Dudley last year looking to address the fines, he said he was told he owed more than $1,000. He said he could not pay, that he had stayed in a homeless shelter the night before. He was sent to jail for 36 days.

“I was in disbelief, saying ‘You’re going to lock me up because I can’t pay a fine?’ ” said James K, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy during job searches.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said. “I was sent to jail because I was poor.” The 105 examples are from Worcester, Plymouth, and Essex counties. It’s unclear how many other cases may have also occurred in other counties.

The review found that most of the 105 defendants who were sent to jail had initially arrived at the court for a relatively minor offense: 40 percent of the cases related to automobile violations that did not involve allegations of operating under the influence. In 16 percent of the cases, the original charge was for public disorder, such as disorderly conduct, public drinking, or trespassing.

None of the 105 defendants went to trial on the original offense, and in 60 percent of the cases the charges were continued without a finding or disposed of with pretrial probation. In 40 instances, the defendant was guilty of at least one charge, but only four ended up serving jail time at the original disposition of the case.

Ultimately, the sentences ranged from one day to 112 days. In nearly half of the cases, the defendant was ordered to serve at least two weeks.

The state expects more than $40 million in fees and fines each year, half of it related to probation fees, according to the Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat from Lexington and chairman of the Committee on Post Audit and Oversight, said the review raised troubling questions about the state’s dependence on revenue from the poor, through the imposition of fees and fines — with stiff enforcement designed to make people pay up.

“We do this in the name of punishment, but it turns out to be a nifty business in terms of revenue generation, and we’ve grown too fond of what it pulls in,” said Barrett, an attorney by trade. “It’s a money­making sideline, run by the criminal justice system. The money comes out of the hides of not only poor offenders who have to get their lives back on track, but also the families of poor offenders. . . . We need to descale the hunt for revenue to sustain the court system.”

The review comes as top court officials have recently acknowledged the need for the courts “to provide equal justice for those who face financial challenges.” Ralph Gants, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, said in his annual State of the Courts address last month that “We are examining whether we are unwittingly punishing poverty by the imposition of fines, fees, and restitution that a defendant has no ability to pay, and taking steps to ensure that the inability to pay does not result in the revocation of probation, the inappropriate extension of a period of probation, or time in jail.”

Barrett said the review of cases and state laws shows it may take a combination of new court policies and legislative fixes to address the issue. ‘We are examining whether we are unwittingly punishing poverty by the imposition of fines,fees, and restitution . . . ’

State law, for instance, allows for a defendant to pay off fees by serving jail time, at a rate of $30 a day. Barrett’s committee called for increasing the rate to $60, so that a defendant can pay off his dues quicker if jail becomes an option.

The review also found that judges failed to appoint lawyers for defendants — who had already been declared indigent — when considering whether to send them to jail for failure to pay fines, a potential violation of their constitutional right to counsel. Barrett’s committee called on the Supreme Judicial Court to uphold a defendant’s right to an attorney in such cases, saying the court has not yet addressed the issue directly.

At the least, Barrett said, the courts should set policy requiring judges to appoint lawyers and to better inquire into whether a defendant is being in contempt of the court, or truly cannot pay. He also said the courts should consider alternatives to sentencing someone to jail.

“I’m not suggesting all fees go away. I think there’s a place for fines and fees in the fullness of things,” Barrett said. “Some people can feel the sting, and still pay it, but for some people this is more than a sting. It means you can’t pay rent for the month. That’s what we’re finding in these cases.”

Cassandra Bensahih, executive director of the Worcester­based advocacy group ExPrisoners and Prisoners Organized for Community Advancement, said the report shows the cycle of hardships that many low­income people face, in which they can’t get a job because of past encounters with the criminal justice system, and so they can’t pay their fines.

“When they can’t find employment, can’t find jobs, what are they to do?” she said. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.