ACLU Sues Detroit to End Cash Bail System

A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma
A prison cell block is seen at the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma / Getty Images

The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union is suing the 36th District Court and the Wayne County sheriff on behalf of low-income Detroit residents who are caught up in the legal system and unable to afford bail.

"[The cash bail system] punishes people not for what they’ve done, but for what they don’t have," Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of ACLU Michigan, said Monday in a press conference.

The lawsuit alleges that courts do not adequately consider a person’s financial state when imposing bail requirements, nor do they adequately consider whether a person is a flight risk or an immediate danger to the community. This leads to poor people receiving a similar bail amount to someone who is middle class or wealthy, which the ACLU claims is discriminatory and violates the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution.

According to Korobkin, a judge will make quick decisions on bail requirements, which can be as fast as 30 seconds. Because of this process, he said that people are locked up without clear evidence of wrongdoing. Although wealthy people will be able to post bail and walk free, poor people will be stuck in jail and may lose their jobs, their housing and/ or their ability to take care of and watch their children, he said.

A Michigan ACLU news release referred to this as a two-tier system.

The lawsuit also argues that the current system violates the right to an attorney for people accused of crimes because there is no guarantee that an attorney will be present when bail is set. Rather than providing a proper pre-trial hearing, it alleges that the court imposes bail through a cursory and summary procedure, which does not facilitate this Constitutional protection.

Korobkin said the current legal system harms communities, businesses, families and taxpayers who have to finance people’s stay in jail when they have not been convicted of a crime.

The ACLU's seven-person class-action lawsuit was filed with the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. One of the alleged victims of the legal system, Kushawn Moore, is a 17-year-old high school student being accused of armed robbery, who had his case brought by his father. During the news conference, his mother said that he has no prior criminal record, but that neither he nor anyone in the family can afford $50,000 bail.

"He deserves to be free," she said.

According to a news release, the ACLU analyzed hundreds of court proceedings before filing the lawsuit. The news release claims that a typical arraignment lasts between two and four minutes and the bail setting lasts less than one minute and is done through a video teleconference.

About 95 percent of the time, no attorney is present and about 85 percent of the time, a person was required to pay bail, according to the news release. DDC guards would sometimes shush a person if he complains that he cannot pay the bail, the ACLU alleges.