$190 and Counting: Bail Blog #3
Click here for the story of Ginger’s arrest and my experience bailing her out: The New Price of Freedom: $40 (Bail Blog #2)
A quick refresher
In May 2014 Ginger called the police when a man (we’ll call him Pete) in the housing facility for formerly homeless men where she’d been living for the past year threatened to bash in her head and the head of her “nigger boyfriend.” The police came and arrested Ginger for spitting at the man. A transgender woman, she was terrified at being locked up in the men’s jail. She called me in tears and I came to the jail and bailed her out for $40. Three days later we went to court for her arraignment. She met her court-appointed public defender for the first time when he stood up as she was called to approach the bench.
Over the past few months Ginger has called me at least three times a week to make sure that I had not forgotten that I promised to drive her to court in July. Without access to a car, she worried that she wouldn’t be able to arrive for the 9:00 a.m. court session, and that even if she did arrive on time she would look disheveled. But mostly she wanted to be sure I’d be there to support her.
Ginger’s morning in court
Yesterday the big day finally arrived. Ginger had dressed carefully in jeans and a nice shirt that did not scream out either ‘male’ nor ‘female’; in other words, an outfit designed not to ruffle any feathers at the courthouse.
Our first stop was the clerk’s office. Ginger handed over the form showing the $40 bail which we assumed would be refunded when she came to court. After all, that is the purpose of bail. The clerk, however, explained that Ginger had been released on personal recognizance and the $40 was a non-refundable fee paid to the bail commissioner.$40 down.
Ginger then was told to pay the clerk $150 for the lawyer’s fee. Since her total monthly income is $700 (Social Security) out of which she pays rent, telephone, transportation, toiletries and other necessary expenses, the $150 cleaned her out for the month. (We later heard the judge tell a young white man that he either could pay the $150 or do fifteen hours of community service. Ginger was not given that choice – we do not know why.)
In the courtroom nothing seemed to be happening. A number of lawyers were chatting, several court employees were catching up on their weekend activities, and a handful of people like Ginger were sitting nervously waiting for the judge to arrive. The bailiff told us that Ginger’s lawyer would be late and so we sat down to wait some more. The judge finally entered the courtroom, everyone rose, and the first half dozen cases were called. Each took under three minutes; each was continued to a later date.
At 11:00 the judge called for a ten minute recess. Half an hour later the session had not yet resumed but Ginger’s lawyer finally arrived and came over to chat with us in the courtroom within earshot of at least a dozen people. He asked her if the man involved was in court. Ginger explained that Pete did not come and that he had met with her and the director of the transitional housing program at which time he told them that he did not want to press charges. The lawyer asked Ginger if Pete had written this down. Ginger said he had not and added, “Pete is not going to do something like that.” I silently observed that it’s unlikely that Pete is sufficiently literate to write a memo of this sort, and that even if he could he would not want to produce an official document for the courts out of fear that it could be used against him in the future. Ginger’s lawyer told us that when the judge called them they would set the next court date and that he has every hope that the charges will be dropped at that time. We asked whether he could request today that the charges be dropped but, the lawyer said, that’s not possible because Pete had not informed him that he didn’t want to press charges.
Since the lawyer had not been in touch with Ginger over the months between the arraignment and yesterday’s court date we were a bit miffed, an emotion I was ready to show but that Ginger – far savvier than I – refrained from expressing. A minute before the judge re-entered the courtroom the lawyer gave Ginger his business card and told her to tell Pete to call him. Ginger explained that “there’s no way Pete will call.” “That’s not a problem,” the lawyer replied. “You can call me and tell me that Pete doesn’t want to press charges.”
The judge called Ginger’s name. The lawyer agreed to a court date in September and a minute later the next case was called. Ginger is out $190 dollars and her case is still considered “open”.
Return to debtor’s prison
A 2014 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Way Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor, documents the resurgence of what look a lot like debtors prisons. “State and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision. And in the face of mounting budget deficits at the state and local level, courts across the country have used aggressive tactics to collect these unpaid fines and fees, including for traffic offenses and other low-level offenses. These courts have ordered the arrest and jailing of people who fall behind on their payments, without affording any hearings to determine an individual’s ability to pay or offering alternatives to payment such as community service.”
Elizabeth, a homeless woman I met in Massachusetts at about the same time I initially met Ginger, decided one night to sleep on a bench at a train station. She had come to feel that it was too dangerous to sleep in more open places like parks where, as she explained, “people are murdered all the time.” At the station she was arrested for trespassing by a police officer who “doesn’t like homeless people.” In court she was ordered to pay a $300 fine. She did not have the money. Exasperated, she noted, “This is a waste of the court’s time…they should be going after real criminals.”
Living on Social Security, Elizabeth could not pay the $300 at one go. So, when a month or so later she called the police for assistance (a motel clerk tried to steal money from her), the officers who came looked at her ID, saw that she owed the $300 fine, and arrested and handcuffed her. “I spent three days in jail waiting for a judge because it was a three-day-weekend.” The lesson Elizabeth learned from this experience: If you have outstanding warrants – even for court fees – do not call the police even if you are being threatened or attacked.
Cases like Elizabeth’s are shocking enough. But if I hadn’t been able to help Ginger not only would she have sat in jail for three days waiting to be arraigned, but she also would have become one of the many women I know who have accumulated fees WITHOUT being convicted of a crime. As a consequence, she would be liable to be locked up for any minor infraction of the law: jay-walking, littering, or simply failing to pay the court fees on a case that was dropped or in which she was acquitted.
Something even conservatives can get behind
Not only are these practices likely unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses, they are also fiscally nonsensical. We pay to keep people in jail awaiting arraignment or trial for the price of $200 or so per day because they cannot afford to pay bail as minimal as $100 [Guilty Until Proven Innocent]. And I saw in court with Ginger yesterday, we finance droves of prosecutors, public defenders and court staff who split their time between hanging around waiting for cases to be called and processing people like Elizabeth for “trespassing”.
Ginger would be the first to agree that violent criminals should go to prison. Indeed, she has been the target of violence far too often for too many years. But – I believe – she’d also be the first to agree that yesterday’s farce does nothing to keep her or anyone else safe. Quite the contrary, it sends the message that justice has a price – in Ginger’s case (so far) — $190.
Follow this link for another post on a related theme: Guilty Until Proven Innocent