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Time For a Free Get Out of Jail Card

October 28, 2015
Plain English Version

JailPeople are often in jail because they do not have the money to get out. They cannot raise the bail money. Or they are in jail because they could not pay a fine. They may end up back in jail months after they are fined and did not pay the fine.

Lawyers have begun to go to court to help lower-income people stay out of jail. One group they are trying to help are people who are awaiting trial. Setting bail is a traditional way of holding people who might flee. However, courts in many places keep people in jail because they are way behind schedule. Defendants have a right to have a lawyer. Sometimes they sit in jail because the court system does not have the money to pay lawyers.

Many defendants cannot raise even the low bail amounts set for minor crimes. This can be a big expense to the state. Jails cost money. More importantly, the person in jail cannot go to work. He cannot pay rent or feed his family. He cannot earn the money he needs to get out of jail.

Lawyers are trying a new approach. It is working. They are saying that if the only reason a person stays in jail is because of the lack of money, it is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

They are citing the “Equal Protection Clause” of the 14th Amendment. They say the Amendment clause means that, if a richer person would go free, a poor person cannot be detained just because he does not have the money.

A lawyer says most state courts have to consider a person’s income when setting bail. He wants that consideration to mean that a person cannot be kept in jail just because he cannot pay.

Changing the rules in 15,000 courts will take a long time. However, the idea of not keeping someone in jail just because they are poor is gaining ground quickly.

Source: The New York Times October 23, 2015

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