Freedom Denied Part 5: Judges Must Stop Unlawfully Jailing People for Poverty Through Excessive Financial Conditions
In our last three posts, we have described how our Federal Criminal Justice Clinic’s Freedom Denied report reveals a culture of detention, with federal judges routinely violating the Bail Reform Act that they are tasked with upholding.
This post addresses the last of our four findings and recommendations: “Judges must stop unlawfully jailing people for poverty through excessive financial conditions.”
The Bail Reform Act unequivocally prohibits judges from jailing people who are too poor to pay for their release: “The judicial officer may not impose a financial condition that results in the pretrial detention of the person.” 18 U.S.C. § 3142(c)(2).
Despite the Act’s prohibition,
[o]ur courtwatching study shows that federal judges consistently impose financial conditions of release that result in pretrial detention. This practice violates the explicit statutory language of the Bail Reform Act, perpetuates a system where wealth buys release and people are jailed for poverty, and has a disproportionate racial impact. These detentions, which violate the law, contribute to rising detention rates as well as racial and socioeconomic disparities in the federal system.
Given the Act’s clarity on this issue, we were shocked to see judges imposing unmeetable financial conditions, ultimately resulting in pretrial jailing:
Across all 4 districts, arrestees did not have the money to meet financial conditions in 36% of cases where such conditions were imposed. See Figure 23. In fact, 21% of all arrestees detained at the Initial Appearance remained in jail after the Detention Hearing because they could not meet financial conditions of release. For these individuals, the financial conditions acted as de facto detention orders, in violation of the law.
Even more strikingly, we found judges jailing people on unmeetable bail bonds:
In one district where we courtwatched, arrestees were detained in 40% of cases involving financial conditions solely because they did not have the money to pay for their release…. Judges in that di
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