Judge Rules Cullman County, Alabama’s Bail System Illegally Discriminates Against the Poor

CULLMAN COUNTY, Ala. – Today, people who were jailed simply because they could not afford bail in Cullman County, Alabama, won a significant victory when a federal court judge ruled that the practice of jailing those who cannot pay is unconstitutional.  The judge entered a preliminary injunction order that prohibits Cullman County from continuing to discriminate against the poor through its bail system.  This follows a memorandum opinion entered last week explaining why the county’s practices were illegal.  As the Court explained, “Cullman County’s discriminatory bail practices deprive indigent criminal defendants in Cullman County of equal protection of the law” and its justifications for using a bail schedule are “illusory and conspicuously arbitrary.”

This preliminary injunction will remain in effect while the lawsuit challenging the practice is fully resolved and permanent relief is ordered.

The lawsuit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Civil Rights Corps, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama on behalf of Bradley Hester, who was held on a $1,000 bond he could not afford. The organizations jointly issued the following statements:

Statement from Sam Brooke, deputy legal director, the Southern Poverty Law Center:

“Today was a big win for all Cullman County residents because no longer will the county be allowed to treat residents with means differently than those without in our criminal justice system.  Jails are not meant to warehouse people who have not been convicted of a crime, particularly where, as here, the rich are able to buy their freedom and impoverished people are left to languish in jail. This form of wealth-based discrimination that keeps people in jail just because they cannot afford their freedom is unconstitutional.  We will continue to fight to eliminate wealth-based justice.” 

Statement from Katherine Hubbard, attorney, Civil Rights Corps:

“Reforms are underway.  Most municipal courts in Alabama have already moved away from money bail.  Today’s decision affirms that progress, and encourages more, recognizing that our district and circuit courts still have a long way to go.

“We look forward to working with the county officials to ensure their new practices comply with the preliminary injunction order, and we will continue our litigation against Cullman County until permanent relief is implemented. We hope other courts will take notice and end these abuses in their own jurisdictions without waiting for a lawsuit to force the issue.”

Statement from Brock Boone, staff attorney, ACLU of Alabama:  

“The federal court’s decision today acknowledges what policy makers, advocates, and state courts across the country are recognizing:  that locking people up simply based on poverty is unacceptable, and that a just bail system must provide robust protections to ensure that those presumed innocent are released pretrial, while only the most severe cases will require detention. 

“Cullman County is in many ways typical of courts across Alabama.  Far too often, its bail system results in people being locked away pretrial simply because they could not pay.  Courts throughout Alabama, and the country, are setting bail above what people can pay, without any protections to ensure that this draconian penalty is used only when absolutely necessary.”

Learn more about the fight to end wealth-based pretrial detention here

Criminal Justice reform in Philadelphia

While the rest of the nation debates on how best to proceed on criminal justice reform, the city of Philadelphia isn’t waiting. The Washington Post reports that reforms that went into place two years ago are starting to produce results. For example, the city just closed its infamous House of Correction jail because the number of inmates being housed has fallen by one-third. Changes are being made to the city’s bail system, and police are taking more people to treatment instead of jail. Click here to read more about how Philadelphia is reforming criminal justice.