Michigan’s largest district court and bail reform advocates have agreed to settle a federal class action lawsuit over cash bail practices, which activists say routinely and unconstitutionally jail poor and delinquent defendants. working class despite evidence of their inability to pay.
Both sides say the reforms announced Tuesday attack racial inequality in the criminal legal system. On any given day in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, the nation’s blackest city, nearly three-quarters of those incarcerated are black, a far higher proportion than their share of the population.
If the reforms reduce that disparity, it could be a model for court systems across the country, where race and wealth are important factors in the administration of justice, advocates say.
The 36th District Court in Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union and The Bail Project, a nonprofit that pays bail for people in need, said the status quo wreaks unnecessary havoc on defendants’ jobs, homes and families. .
“This is a landmark agreement that we believe can and should be a model for how courts across the country can adapt their bail practices to what is legal, constitutional and sensible,” said Phil Mayor, lead attorney for the ACLU of Michigan.
Chief Judge William McConico of the 36th District Court said settling the class action lawsuit, filed in 2019 just before he became chief, presented an opportunity to show that law enforcement and activists can work together to change the criminal legal system.
“Other black cities will be able to point to what one of the largest district courts in the country is doing to address this issue,” said McConico, who is black. “That’s why it’s so important that this start in a big black city, not take place in a suburban city or a small courthouse.”
The reforms, shared with The Associated Press exclusively ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, do not prevent judges from imposing cash bail, especially if defendants are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public. However, all Detroit judges and magistrates are required to put on record how posting bail would protect the community or prevent a default. Judges must also make an official determination as to how much the defendant can pay.
The parties also agreed that any defendant found to be at or below 200% of the federal poverty level will be presumed incapable of posting cash bail. Based on 2022 federal guidelines, 200% of the poverty level is annual income of approximately $27,000 for an individual and $55,000 for a family of four.
“This should largely eliminate the practice of imposing what may seem to some to be small amounts of cash bail, which effectively serve as a jail sentence for someone who has not yet been convicted of a crime,” Mayor said.
The parties also agreed to new rules stipulating when and what triggers a bail redetermination hearing, if a defendant’s bail has been set but is not paid. The hearing would allow the bail amount to be reduced or completely withdrawn if it is later deemed unaffordable.
The reforms in Detroit come as some states and local jurisdictions in the US have rolled back or are considering rolling back bail reforms in response to rising crime in the pandemic era. From San Francisco to New York City and cities in between, rhetoric about rising violence and nuisance crime has dampened political momentum despite bipartisan agreement that mass incarceration is costly and has no proven positive effect on public safety.
“We are still moving forward in a very thoughtful way, to say that the presumption of innocence matters, that the mass incarceration of people before trial needs to be reversed, and that racial disparities at the pretrial stage need to be addressed in a very real way. said Twyla Carter, outgoing national director of policy and legal affairs for The Bail Project.
The ACLU, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, The Bail Project, and the law firm Covington & Burling LLP sued the chief judge, court magistrates, and Wayne County Sheriff in U.S. District Court. for the Eastern District of Michigan in 2019, on behalf of seven black plaintiffs. The plaintiffs alleged that the only reason they remained in jail was because they could not post bail.
At the time of her incarceration in April 2019, one plaintiff, Starmanie Jackson, an impoverished single mother with children ages 2 and 4, was set on $700 bond for outstanding traffic tickets and one count of domestic violence. Because she couldn’t pay, Jackson, who had never been arrested before, was separated from her children for the first time in her lives.
“I was devastated,” said Jackson, 27. “It was harrowing, scary and disappointing, because we depend on our justice system to keep us safe and on track.”
She said her family was unable to locate her for two days, as jail officials struggled to confirm where she was being held. As a result of her incarceration, Jackson, a certified nursing assistant, said she lost a new job at a nursing home when she didn’t show up for her first shift and was evicted from her apartment after she used rent money to help. to pay his bail. . The domestic violence charge was eventually dropped, and Jackson never spent another day in jail.
The deal is a happy ending to what turned out to be a nightmare, said Jackson, now a mother of four.
“I’m ecstatic that I can help people get through some of the difficulties in our already overburdened justice system,” she said.
As part of the settlement, Jackson and the other plaintiffs will split a $14,000 payment. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the amount was agreed to with the knowledge that the court would also spend money to track bail and remand. The court did not admit wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
According to a 2020 report from the Michigan Joint Task Force on Jail and Pretrial Incarceration, between 2016 and 2018, Black men accounted for 29% of jail admissions in sample-of-force counties of homework, despite the fact that they only represented 6% of the residents. population in those counties. Between 2018 and 2019 in Wayne County, blacks made up 70% of those detained in the local jail on any given day, despite only making up 39% of the resident population.
Nationwide, recent studies show that black defendants make up the majority of people in pretrial detention. However, the rate of incarceration of black people in jail had decreased between 2008 and 2019, according to the latest federal data.
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who is lead counsel for Covington & Burling, praised the Detroit district court for reaching an agreement on the reforms. “This is how our criminal justice system should work,” he said. “It can and should be a model for other jurisdictions across the country.”
Ezekiel Edwards, vice president of pretrial criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization that supports research and policy work on justice issues, said bail systems in the US have become more reformist. during the last decade. But the political landscape remains a mosaic, he said.
“Cash bail is still used in most jurisdictions in the country and without the necessary regulations or limitations,” Edwards said.
As for achieving racial justice in Detroit, McConico said there will be a racially diverse bar association and a majority black bench of judges and justices who will work together under the new administrative policies to ensure they have a chance to succeed.
“It will not be just symbolic,” the head judge said. “There will be African Americans making a change in the criminal justice system that will disproportionately impact African Americans.”
Morrison is a member of the Associated Press’s race and ethnicity team in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/aaronlmorrison.