Shaila Dewan
October 23, 2015

An indigent mother of two with serious mental and physical health problems was arrested in Clanton, AL. She was told that if she had $2,000, she could post bail and leave. If she did not, she would wait a week before seeing a judge. Two days later, a civil rights lawyer named Alec Karakatsanis sued on her behalf, alleging that bail policies in Clanton discriminated against the poor by imprisoning them while allowing those with money to go free.

The response was quick: Clanton told the court that defendants would be able to see a judge within 48 hours.

Since then, Mr. Karakatsanis has sued six additional jurisdictions in four different states. His legal strategy has proved effective, and the suits are now being replicated around the country, with support from the federal Justice Department and rulings that endorse the assertion that the money bail system is unfair to the poor.

Cherise Fanno Burdeen, the executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute and a longtime advocate of bail reform, said Karakatsanis had “revitalized the legal arguments” against money bail.

“We’ve been working on it from a policy level, trying to change the culture of jails,” Ms. Burdeen said. “But a legal strategy of suing about these issues hasn’t been something that people have figured out how to do for decades.”

So far, judges have bought in. “Justice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty,” Myron H. Thompson, a federal judge in Alabama’s Middle District, wrote in the Clanton case, “is no justice at all.”

Court by Court, Lawyers Fight Policies That Fall Heavily on the Poor
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