Los Angeles Times

How the poor get locked up and the rich go free

August 16, 2017

By The Times Editorial Board

Arguments were filed last week in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in support of Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a young mother who was held in a Houston jail for three days last year because she couldn't pay $2,500 in bail. Her alleged crime? Driving with an invalid license.

ODonnell's plight is similar to that of thousands of people each year in Texas, California and around the nation who are arrested, then jailed without any finding of guilt or innocence because they don't have the money to buy their release. As in California, HarrisCounty prosecutors and judges determine the level of bail by consulting a schedule that assigns an amount to the offense but does not answer a set of questions tied directly to the purpose of bail: Can this defendant afford it? Is she a risk to flee? Does she pose a threat to public safety?

Recall that another Texas driver, Sandra Bland, was arrested in 2015 and died in jail while waiting for her family to try to scrape together $515 in bail. Her story is often and appropriately juxtaposed with the saga of Robert Durst, who was charged in Texas with murder in 2001. Durst, one of the heirs to a vast New York real estate fortune, could afford his $300,000 bail and was released. But the money did not reduce the risk. He fled.

Meanwhile, the typical U.S. jail is about 60% filled not with convicted criminals but with people awaiting trial, stuck behind bars not because of their guilt or innocence or their risk to flee, but because of their poverty.

Such a system is unjust. And stupid.


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