Bail amounts under scrutiny by Justice Dept.

Published 5:25 pm Friday, February 27, 2015

The United States Department of Justice has filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit against the city of Clanton alleging fixed bail amounts are unfair to poor people.

Christy Dawn Varden, 41, stated in a lawsuit filed against the city of Clanton in January that she was arrested outside of the Walmart in Clanton and placed in jail for minor misdemeanor offenses because she could not pay a $2,000 bond immediately.

Varden claims she was told she would be kept in jail unless she paid $2,000.

According to the lawsuit, arrestees too poor to afford the bond money, $500 for each misdemeanor charge, must remain in jail until the following Tuesday, when they appear via a video conference from the jail at the city’s only weekly court session.

“Because court is held only once per week, an arrestee too poor to buy out of jail could spend more than six days in jail prior to a first court appearance,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit goes on to claim that unlike many other cities, the city of Clanton does not allow post-arrest release on recognizance or with an unsecured bond (in which a person would be released by promising to pay the scheduled amount if the person later does not appear). Instead, city officials require that the payment be made up front.

In February, the DOJ filed a statement of interest in the case, agreeing to help provide the court a framework to assess Varden’s claim of an unlawful bail scheme.

“Accordingly, the United States files this statement of interest, reaffirming this country’s commitment to the principles of fundamental fairness and ensuring that ‘the scales of our legal system measure justice, not wealth,’” according to the statement of interest.

The DOJ went on to argue, “if Clanton’s bail system indeed fixes bond amounts based solely on the arrest charge, and does not take individual circumstances into account, the court should find this system to be unconstitutional. Not only are such schemes offensive to equal protection principles, they also constitute bad public policy.”

Varden was arrested Jan. 13 outside of the Clanton Walmart and charged with shoplifting, failure to obey a police officer, resisting arrest and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Varden was told she would be released from jail if she paid a $500 bond for each of her charges but was unable to make the payments because the mother of two children is “indigent,” has no assets and is not employed, the lawsuit states.

She suffers from several severe physical and mental illnesses that prevent her from working, and she is prescribed several medications to deal with her physical and mental illnesses, according to the lawsuit.

Varden also depends on food stamps to survive and receives less than $200 per month in food stamps, which is her only income, and does not own any “real” property or a car, according to the lawsuit.

The city of Clanton filed a response to the lawsuit on Feb. 6 stating Clanton’s bail schedule does not require cash bail and in addition to posting cash, Varden could have hired a commercial bonding company or had a friend or relative pledge property in lieu of a money bond.

“The latter could have been done at no expense to herself or her friend or relative,” the response from the city stated.

“The city of Clanton may be the defendant here, but the plaintiff seeks to have this court usurp the authority of a judge of the Unified Judicial System of Alabama,” according to the response from the city.

The DOJ argues that setting fixed dollar values on bail for certain crimes is unfair to poor people who may not be able to pay, resulting in those individuals remaining in jail.

Essentially, individuals committing similar crimes who have money for bail are free to leave, but those who are unable to afford the bail must stay in jail.

In 1966, the Bail Reform Act was formed with the purpose of the Act to “revise the practices relating to bail to assure that all persons, regardless of their financial status, shall not needlessly be detained pending their appearance to answer charges to testify, or pending appeal, when detention serves neither the ends of justice nor the public interest.”

“The use of a more dynamic bail scheme, such as that set forth in the federal Bail Reform Act, not only ensures adherence to constitutional principals of due process and equal protection, but constitutes better public policy. Individualized determinations, rather than fixed-sum schemes that unfairly target the poor, are vital to preventing jail overcrowding, avoiding the costs attendant to incarceration and providing equal justice for all,” the DOJ states.

Attorneys representing the city of Clanton did not return a request seeking comment.