Locked Up for Being Poor

By:  The Editorial Board

Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a 22-year-old single mother in Harris County, Tex., was arrested last year for driving without a valid license. The judge set her bail at $2,500. She couldn’t afford anything close to that, so she spent three days in jail — even though she posed no risk of skipping town or endangering anyone if she were released.

“In our society,” the Supreme Court has held, “liberty is the norm, and detention prior to trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception.” Yet across America, poor people like Ms. ODonnell are held in jail for days, weeks or even months solely because they don’t have the cash to bail themselves out. All of them are presumed innocent under the law, and many may in fact be innocent, yet most plead guilty just to get out (usually with a sentence of time served). It’s a repulsive practice, and last week, in a case that could have national implications for bail reform, a Federal District Court judge in Houston ruled that it was also unconstitutional.

In a 193-page ruling that followed a lengthy trial, the judge, Lee Rosenthal, said that money bail should be used for people charged with misdemeanors “only in the narrowest of cases,” and even then only when there are strong safeguards in place to ensure that defendants receive due process before being locked up.

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