ACLU Files Lawsuit Against Detroit's Cash Bail System

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit against Detroit’s 36th District Court over cash bail. The Civil Rights organization argues that the cash bail system is not only unconstitutional but also discriminatory against poor people.

“A person’s freedom should not depend on how much money they have,” Dan Korobkin, ACLU of Michigan’s deputy legal director, said in a statement. “Bail was originally intended to ensure a person returns to court to face charges against them. But instead, the money bail system has morphed into mass incarceration of the poor. It punishes people not for what they’ve done but because of what they don’t have.”

The lawsuit names the court’s Chief Judge, Nancy M. Blount, and five magistrates who are responsible for setting bail at arraignment, The Detroit News reported. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is also named in the suit. Accounts by the plaintiffs note that they did not have legal representation at arraignments, which occurred “really fast.” In all of the accounts, plaintiffs said they were not allowed to ask questions and noted that they were not asked if they could afford their bail. The plaintiffs claimed they could not afford bail because they were unemployed. Kushawn Moore Jr., 17, is the youngest of the plaintiffs and is being held at the Andrew C. Baird Detention Facility in downtown Detroit after being charged with armed robbery. In his account, Moore Jr. said he was held on a $50,000 bond during an arraignment that did not even last two minutes.

“I cannot afford to pay the bond because I don’t have a job,” he said in a handwritten account. “I quit my job making minimum wage at McDonalds [sic] to focus on school.” The teen, who attends Ace Academy and is expecting his first child in August, said his parents are also unable to pay for his bond.

Moore Jr. is depressed, worried, and does not understand why he cannot come home, his stepmother Deleda Moore told The Detroit News. “I’ve tried to explain that he can’t come home because we can’t afford to pay for him to come home,” she said. “He’s never been in trouble a day in his life at all. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but it’s like he’s already been convicted.” The teen’s next court date is on April 24.

The ACLU partnered with Covington & Burling’s Los Angeles office to file the suit and said it hopes to overhaul the cash bail system in Michigan. “Detroiters deserve a justice system that is smart, fair, and works for everybody,” Covington lawyer Aaron Lewis said in a statement. Lewis said the cash bail system separates families, harms communities and businesses, “and it wastes taxpayer dollars keeping people locked in jail who should be at home.”

In its statement, the ACLU claimed that research shows that the chance for a fair trial diminishes each day a person is in jail. “Pre-trial detention is the single greatest predictor of a conviction and a sentence to jail or prison time,” the organization said. “It is also more likely that the person will plead guilty even when innocent just to go home.”

In 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown abolished the state’s cash bail system, calling it a tax on poor people, NPR reported. New Jersey and Alaska have also eliminated cash bail; Washington, DC moved away from the practice in 1992. This year, New York voted to eliminate cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent crimes.

Judge Truman A. Morrison, a senior judge on the DC Superior Court, told NPR that he supported Brown’s comments on cash bail and its unfair effect on poor people. “We have so much research now that shows the collateral consequences of needlessly incarcerating people pretrial,” Morrison said. “It increases the likelihood they’ll be recidivists. It destroys their families, the economies of their community, costs us billions of dollars a year to needlessly warehouse people.” The lawsuit contends that cash bail system disproportionately affects people of color.

“That is why we are challenging bail systems like this across the country,” Twyla Carter, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said. “We will continue to challenge bail systems where prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement rely on an unfair and ineffective money bail system.”

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.