Local courts that jail poor defendants because they can’t afford to pay bail are unlawfully discriminating against the poor, federal attorneys say in a Georgia lawsuit. The U.S. Justice Department says such policies are unconstitutional. The Associated Press reports DOJ said it’s the first time it has weighed in with a legal opinion in federal court on bail systems used by state and local courts.
The federal brief was filed last week with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the lawsuit of a Georgia man who spent six days in jail in the city of Calhoun because he couldn’t afford $160 bail after his arrest on a misdemeanor charge. Justice Department lawyers argue that such policies “unlawfully discriminate” against poor defendants by using preset bail amounts that don’t take into account the accused person’s ability to pay. Maurice Walker, 54, sued Calhoun after his arrest last September on a misdemeanor charge of walking while intoxicated. Under a city ordinance, the offense carried a preset $160 bail for Walker to avoid jail before his first appearance before a judge. Walker says he lives on $540 a month in Social Security disability benefits and couldn’t afford to post bail. He was jailed for six days until a municipal court judge could look at his case.