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Is America's bail system anti-poor?
Connecticut's governor recently announced he's seeking an overhaul of his state's bail system, which advocates say discriminates against the poor. - photo by Daniel Bendtsen
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy announced last week he's seeking an overhaul of his state's bail system, eliminating cash bails for those who are not flight-risks, but instead remain in jail "merely because they are poor."

Malloy said "a large proportion of these people are nonviolent, low-level offenders who would be able to get out of jail if they had a credit card, or a friend or family member who could loan them the small amount of money required to do so. Many are homeless, drug addicted, mentally ill and unemployed," according to The Hartford Courant.

Delaware is considering similar action, with Gov. Jack Markell saying "it's not working when a single mom gets stuck in detention because she can't come up with a hundred bucks and has little to no family support, but a dangerous drug dealer can get his minions to bail him out," Delaware Online reported.

The bail system has recently become a high-profile issue for poverty and prison-reform advocates in the U.S.

So far this year, civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis has sued seven cities on behalf of defendants, using the argument that bail is an unfair discrimination against the poor. Six out of seven jurisdictions changed their policies, according to The New York Times.

The cities he's sued typically settle, so cases have yet to make it to higher courts where rulings would have broader effect.

Nevertheless, Karakatsanis and his peers are forcing a culture change by targeting jurisdictions that have particularly draconian practices like Clanton, Alabama, where Karakatsanis' first defendant had to wait a week before seeing a judge when she couldn't afford to post bail.

The American Civil Liberties Union is also waging a separate campaign against other money-related penalties, including "jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers," the Times reported.

New York City is currently experimenting with a "Bail Lab," introduced by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, which is exploring alternatives to cash bail, including release of misdemeanor suspects and a review of judicial decisions by other judges.

Edward McLaughlin, Supreme Court justice of Manhattan, called the move an "insult" to the judiciary, the New York Post reported. The accusation is that daily, countless judges in five boroughs, without consulting each other, knowingly made incorrect bail decisions, McLaughlin said in an email to his peers.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supports eliminating bail for low-level crimes, actually called for stricter bail laws when a multiple drug offender killed a New York City cop in an October shootout, reported.

After the suspect's most recent arrest his 28th he was sent to a drug diversion program. It was inconceivable to me that someone like this shouldve been on the street," de Blasio said, arguing judges should be able to consider public safety risks in deciding whether to release someone on bail. Currently, judges can only consider flight risk for the purposes of bail.

Bail reform activists criticized that stance, calling it a knee-jerk reaction that would encourage judges to use their bias when making decisions that already lock up poor minorities at disproportionate rates.
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